By the Reverend Dr. Warren Crews
One of my favorite op-ed columnists is Tom Friedman of the New York Times. He usually writes very serious articles about political topics. However, I remember a number of years ago, when he wrote about a serious topic—carbon emission offsets—in a very humorous fashion. Now, carbon emission offsets are mostly an effort to enable companies to make up for their own excessive carbon emissions by funding green projects elsewhere. Friedman and some dinner companions had thought of a great idea to promote even more green projects: offsets for the Ten Commandments!
Friedman realized that there is a problem with his new system and its motto of “live bad—go green”: it is trying to reform the world without any change of heart. This system would also require lots of new laws and a lot of inspectors and police to enforce them. He wondered whether there really can be a green revolution without major changes in our energy policies. Furthermore, how likely is it that we human beings are actually going to agree to such a system to offset our sins with contributions to green projects? Not very likely!
In our epistle lesson today, Paul is wrestling with that kind of issue. His congregation in Rome was a mix of Jews and Gentiles. The Jewish Christians were used the tight Jewish system of laws, regulations, rewards and punishments. They were talking about a catalogue of 613 laws in the Old Testament with their great number of applications regulating every aspect of life. Furthermore, they expected the Gentile Christians also to obey them. That was not a winning formula for converting Gentiles. So, Paul in this lesson is trying to explain to the Jewish Christians why the Gentile Christians should be exempted from obeying Jewish laws and regulations. He picked up on Jesus’ teaching, which we call the “Summary of the Law,” in which Jesus taught his disciples that all of those laws and regulations can be summed up in two ways: by loving God with one’s whole heart, mind and soul, and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Get that straight and all those laws and regulations will naturally follow.
However, Paul must have felt that that approach raised the question of what are God’s specific expectations of Gentile Christians. So, Paul in his letters goes on to lay out specifics of how Jesus’ law of love works even for Gentiles. Last week he told us that genuine love thrives in mutual affection and holding each other in honor. But, then he pushed the envelope: we are to bless those who persecute us, feed our enemies, be humble always, take care of the needs of poor Christians—on and on the list goes throughout Paul’s letters. So, if Paul wanted to show the Jewish Christians that God was equally as demanding of Gentiles as God is of Jews, then he succeeded. And, if we add in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus was telling his disciples that they had a hard road ahead of them. Be prepared to carry their own crosses. Hardly a soft, easy, lovey-dovey approach to being a faithful follower of Jesus. Tough stuff all around.
Once again, given the great difficulty of living up to such high expectations, how are we followers of Jesus ever going to fulfill his two great commandments? Part of our difficulty here is that today’s lessons are just a small part of the story. What is missing is that in both the Old and New Testaments it is clear that God initiates God’s covenant with us first. All of those commandments are then God’s way for us to live as God’s Chosen People. So, we don’t have to win God’s favor, God’s love, because that is already ours in God’s covenant with us established in our baptism. God is telling us that God has already given us a new life and that God will remain at the center of our life so that we may have the fullness of life for which God created us. But, if we then reject these covenant obligations—these instructions from God—then we will distance ourselves from God and miss out on that fullness.
So, my friends, what is bottom line here? Jesus and Paul are telling us in different ways that God is once again renewing the covenant with us by empowering us to join with Christ as the embodiment of God’s unconditional love for all humankind. Jesus and Paul believe that we can respond to God’s instructions because we have already been loved completely, totally, unconditionally by our heavenly Father. Therefore, we need to soak in God’s love, let it reshape our hearts and minds so that we respond to God’s love by loving others with that same kind of love. However, Jesus warns us that loving the lovable is easy. Yes, it is important for us to experience that mutual affection that Paul mentions, right here in our church family at St. John’s. However, as we all know, loving the unlovable, those who treat others unjustly, those who do not respect the dignity of every human being, those who do not search for justice and peace, loving them is difficult and can be our cross to bear. But labor on we must, because the love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ is meant to be shared. When we share it, it deepens and grows. When it is not shared, it can shrink and even die. On this Labor Day weekend it is so important for us to remember that Christ’s love includes all humankind. That involves fighting for things such a living wage for all, access to good education and health care, and affordable housing for all—the list goes on and on. The good news is that in the midst of those needs that seem so overwhelming, Jesus is standing there, calling us to join him. Friends, alone we can do little, together we can achieve much! With Christ in our midst and empowered by the Holy Spirit the possibilities of such love are limitless. AMEN.
The Reverend Dr. Warren Crews is co-priest in charge at St. John's.
Various members of the St. John's congregation contribute to this blog. For editorial suggestions, contact Jeff McIntire-Strasburg at firstname.lastname@example.org