It Goes Both Ways
The Letter from Paul to the Romans is unusual because Paul is writing to a group he has never met. Most of the letters that Paul wrote were to communities that he had founded or that he had spent some significant time with before. So they’re filled with specifics, details about specific situations, instructions for specific people, and they deal with the distinct challenges of that community. But Romans is a preamble. Paul wrote to the Romans because he wanted to go to Rome. His letter is an introduction, and a chance to offer his wisdom to a community of Christians he’d heart about. Because of that, Romans isn’t a letter full of specifics, it is a letter full of generalities.
Because of that, some of our most important theological concepts – the relationship between faith and works, sanctification, and grace, are rooted in passages that we find in the book of Romans. Paul’s major point to the Romans is that the law of Moses is not a prerequisite to the salvation of Jesus. Paul is concerned that people might begin to think that they have the ability to save themselves by perfect obedience to the law. But Paul says that’s not possible. You can’t be perfect. But you can depend on God’s perfect love. Our relationship with God is not dependent on our ability to follow the law to the letter. It is dependent upon our faith in God.
In our passage for today, Paul talks about what the law means for those who have been saved by grace. If we can’t ensure our salvation through following the law, is the law of no value to us? No! The law reveals God’s love and purpose for us. And the heart of the law is the one we call the Golden Rule: You must love your neighbor as yourself. All of the commandments, Paul tells us, can be summed up in this one commandment. Love one another.
Now, in today’s day and age, when we hear the word love, we think of a feeling. We think of romantic love. In movies and songs love is portrayed as a feeling that’s out of control. We fall in love. It’s an accident. We fall out of love, and that’s an accident too. We talk about love as if it comes out of the blue, and say that we are rendered helpless by its power. This is a great way to talk about love if you’re writing sonnets in Victorian England or making 90’s romantic comedies. But all of those things ignore the nitty-gritty truth about long-term, meaningful love between two parties. It’s hard work.
When you talk to people who’ve been married for 50 years, they won’t tell you it’s because they’ve had the exact same feeling for 50 years. It’s because whatever they’ve felt at any given time in their relationship, they chose to love anyway. The feelings of love are just a small part of it. The greater part of love is a craft. It’s the kind of thing that you learn to do over a long time, through patience, and practice, and hard work. When Paul talks about the commandments being summed up in the command: Love one another, he is talking about the craft. Regardless of our feelings at any given moment, loving one another means practice the craft of orienting ourselves towards the needs of our neighbors.
In the early 90’s, the University of Washington developed what they called “The Love Lab” in order to study and look for what makes a relationship successful. And one of the things that they noticed in successful couples had do to with what happens when one person made a request for connection. The example they give was a spouse who was a bird enthusiast, calling out to his wife about at a goldfinch in the yard. He’s telling her about the bird, but he’s also looking for engagement, a response that indicates some interest or support. The other partner can respond by turning toward their spouse showing interest, expressing some positive response. Or they can turn away from their partner, ignoring it, or offering minimal response, or more hostilely, “quit bugging me, I’m trying to read.” Couples with high rates of turning towards each other were more likely to be together years later. The work of turning towards our partner in these bids for affection is a practice, something that we can adopt in order to love better. It is part of the craft of loving someone. It involves orienting ourselves in such a way that we are turning toward our partner, not ignoring or turning away.
And because love is a craft, it’s something we can learn to do. We do not need to wait until we have sentimental feelings about our neighbor. We can even learn to love the people we hate or are ambivalent towards. This is where the commandments come back into the picture. Because it goes both ways. If all of the commandments are summed up in the one commandment to love one another, then each commandment is an explanation of a little piece of what that means. The commandments show us what it means to love one another in real, practical ways. The purpose of the law then is not to teach us how to avoid sin and thus obtain perfect righteousness. The purpose of the law is to teach us how to love one another the way God loves us.
You shall not steal. Bless those who persecute you. Judge not. Do not store up treasures on earth. Wash one another’s feet. All of these are opportunities to practice real, Godly love for our neighbors. They are practices for learning the craft of love. The commandments help us get over ourselves and orient our hearts towards serving one another.
If we’re going to love one another, we have to take the commandments of God, in both New and Old Testaments, seriously. But not as ends of their own. The law exists as part of a greater purpose, as a revelation of God’s will for God’s people. And the summation of that will is that we love one another the way God loves us. This is the love that God has shown for us: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son that whosoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. Christ went to the cross, suffered and died for us. What that tells us, what the miracle of the incarnation tells us, is that God’s orientation is toward us. In your bids for God’s attention, in your prayers, in your hopes, and in your dreams, God is turned toward you. God loves you, and that is revealed in what God did in coming down to earth in the form of Jesus Christ. And he told us that if you want to follow him, you must take up your cross too. All of the commandments are summed up in the command to love our neighbor, because all of the commandments must be seen through the lens of the great actions of God’s love. God came down to be with us, to understand, to know, and to love. In the person of Jesus he walked alongside us, he broke bread with us, and he proclaimed that God’s good news was for everybody. He suffered with us, and he suffered for us, and he loved us until his dying breath at our hands. Three days later he was raised up, because God’s love is stronger than sin and death. This is the shape of God’s love for us, the love of a God who would become one of us in order to understand, to love, and to lift up.
When Paul tells us that loving one another is the summation of all the commandments, this is the love that he is talking about. This is the love that he wants us to show our neighbor. That is the love that saves. That is the love that redeems. It is is the love that conquers all. This is the love that God has given us in Jesus. And this is the love that we should share with our neighbor.