Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
10th of September 2017
Today is the second-last Sunday on which the Lectionary offers us readings from Paul’s Letter to the Romans and I’m a little sad about that. I’ve enjoyed spending some serious time with the Apostle Paul and particularly with this, his last and longest letter. Luckily for us, before we say ‘good-bye’ to Romans Paul has some final wisdom for us.
Last week we heard the beautiful passage that begins ‘Let love be genuine’. After spending the first part of his Letter telling the Romans that they have become part of the family of God and so they are able to enter into righteousness, into a right relationship with God, Paul in this second part is telling them what living out that righteousness looks like. And it’s all about love. Paul reassures us that we are able to love, to show such genuine love for our friends and enemies that we overcome evil with good, because we live in Christ and Christ lives in us. As Paul has reminded the Romans and us over and over again, in our new relationship with God we’re no longer slaves to sin. We can live lives pleasing to God; lives of love. Today’s reading, like that of last week, expands on what those lives look like.
But before I get to today’s reading I want to mention the seven verses that the Lectionary has cut out of this part of the letter. In the entire three-year lectionary we never read Romans 13:1-7. This is because the passage begins: ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.’ I can’t imagine that was an easy passage for Paul’s audience to hear as a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire. It’s pretty much an impossible passage to preach on after the Holocaust and the Apartheid Regime, when churches in Germany and South Africa explicitly drew on it in justification.
Many commentators believe that the passage is an interpolation added into the letter after Paul’s death; it’s so unlike the rest of the letter and seems so off-topic. But it’s completely possible that Paul wrote it himself. It ends, ‘Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due.’ This was at a time when there were controversies and civil disturbances in Rome over taxation abuses. Paul might have been trying to prevent Roman Christians from doing anything that would bring the wrath of the authorities down on them. He might also have been reassuring them that when he visited he wouldn’t himself do anything that would cause problems for them. And, finally, he might have had to offer a corrective to people who thought that becoming part of the new life offered in Christ meant that they didn’t have to fulfil the obligations of the old life. There are still some Christian sects around who claim that they don’t need to pay taxes or rates because they aren’t subject to civil laws. Paul wouldn’t have much sympathy for them.
If this is genuine Paul, then it’s neatly located in the part of the letter that tells us how living in love should affect our daily lives. We are to genuinely act with love towards our Christian sisters and brothers; our neighbours; our enemies; and now even the secular authorities. And having talked about paying to all what we owe them, Paul moves on to exactly what it is that we owe to all: ‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law … Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.’
The commandments that Paul quotes are from the second part of the Ten, some of those that deal with our treatment of our neighbours, rather than those in the first part that talk about how we are to act towards God. And they’re all negative: ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’. In contrast the commandment of love is positive: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
Decades ago, when I was studying law and learning about human rights, I learned about ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ rights. Negative rights tend to come first, and are much easier to enforce. They’re the rights that limit what governments can do to people and what people can do to each other, rights like: no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of their life; no one shall be held in slavery; no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention; and so on and so forth. (Those all come from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Australia has ratified.) They’re primarily about non-interference.
But there are also positive rights, and those are much harder to enforce. There’s the right to work, for example, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain their living by freely chosen work. Does this mean that governments are required to ensure that there are enough jobs for everyone? There’s the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing. Does that mean that governments are required to provide all their citizens with a universal basic income? If some people are unable to access higher education because going to university is too expensive for them, is that a breach of their right to an education? The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Australia has also ratified, would say yes. But it’s much harder to argue that a government must spend a nation’s budget on particular things than it is to argue that a government shouldn’t interfere with the freedom of its citizens.
It’s much easier to argue for negative rights, to command people not to do things, than to argue for positive rights, to demand that people and governments do things. But that’s the change in emphasis that Paul is making here. He’s moving his readers and us from commandments that tell us what not to do, to a fulfilling of the law in love that tells us to take action. Last week we were told to go out and find ways of loving each other, not to lack in zeal and to be ardent in Spirit. This week we’re again reminded that Christian love is an activity, not a feeling.
Paul concludes this section by telling the Romans why living in Christ is so important: the night is far gone, the day is near. At the time Paul expected that Jesus would return quickly, but his warning is as true for all of us as it was for the first Romans. One of my teachers at Theological College once said something that struck me then and has remained with me ever since. We have a tendency to look backwards; back two thousand years; back to Bethlehem and Jerusalem; and feel that we are getting further and further away from Jesus. But Paul wants us to look forward; to the new age that Jesus initiated. ‘Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.’ At the moment we’re in the in-between time, between Christ’s resurrection and his coming again. We’re drawing closer, minute by minute, to the promised end, the final reconciliation of humanity under God’s sovereign grace. We’re not journeying further away from Jesus; we’re on a pilgrimage towards the final consummation of all things which Christ will bring.
In this in-between time, we’re to live honourable lives: ‘not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy’. I wonder if the Romans had the same problem with that list that I do. When I read it I feel an extremely unchristian pride that I am not guilty of revelry, drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness. I’m not even tempted to any of those particular sins. But quarrelling and jealousy? I can barely get through a day without being guilty of one or the other. I suspect I’m not alone among Christians, which might be why churches have tended to be much more concerned about the first four than the last two. It’s so much easier for us to look at the speck in our neighbour’s eye than the plank in our own. But Paul didn’t make a distinction between types of wrong-doing, Jesus didn’t, and neither should we. Being jealous of our neighbour is as unloving as drinking away our family’s savings, one of the sins from which Methodists and the Salvation Army sought to save the working class.
As I said last week, for Christians everything is about love. We’re called to love our siblings, our neighbours, our enemies and even the authorities in imitation of the God who is love and who loves us. And as Jesus told his disciples on his last night with them: ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ Let us go out into the world and live out our calling as those who have been loved and so can love others. Thanks be to the God who loves us. Amen.