This post is the final one in a series based on my recent sermon “The Debt of Love,” preached at Bethel Presbyterian Church in Northport, Alabama.

“The commandments…are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Romans 13:9).

The Book of Leviticus says that correcting or rebuking someone about their behavior is an expression of love (Leviticus 19:17). The Gospel of Matthew (18:15-20) gives an example of such loving admonishment in the community of faith. Someone has wronged another member of the church. What is to be done? There are several options. The one wronged could stew about the grievance and hold a grudge. He or she could spread rumors about the offending brother or sister. Or the hurt one could do the unthinkable: go to the person who committed the offense and talk. Love wants a relationship to be made whole again. Love that does no harm knows that a sister or a brother is harmed by being alienated from another, whether he or she knows it or not. The one who was hurt is harmed, too, because he or she doesn’t have a proper relationship with the other member. Wholeness is found in community. The purpose of the conversation, as difficult and painful as it may be, is to regain a positive relationship. Love leads us to seek out those who have done us wrong and talk seriously about what happened.

None of us likes to talk about things that are unpleasant. Sometimes we’d rather sweep problems under the rug. We seem to believe that if we ignore them long enough, they’ll go away, like a stray dog who comes around wanting food and a scratch behind the ears. And ignoring a problem works. For awhile. But if that’s our standard method of conflict management, we’re in for a rude surprise. One day, like a volcano, it will all erupt—all the pain, all the anger, all the frustration, and for the slightest of reasons. Except that what we see as a triviality is really a trigger.

My first time in seminary, I shared a house with three other guys named Jim, Ernie, and John. I barely knew John and Ernie; they seemed to be gone most of the time. But Jim and I got to be good friends. Some of the things I did rubbed him the wrong way and vice-versa. But I was brought up to be nice; you simply didn’t say things to people. Talk about them behind their backs, yes, but not to their face!

But one day I had had it. For some reason, the way Jim answered the phone pushed some button. All my anger and frustration and irritation focused on the silly way Jim pronounced “hello.” I confronted him, and we had it out about all the issues that I had had and he had had since we met. Our friendship was actually stronger after that. I had gained a brother.

Paying the debt of love isn’t easy. But Paul is convinced that trying to fulfill every detail of the law would be harder still. He should know. He tried and failed, as did his peers. Better to have one focus, one ultimate calling, one principle that guides us in every situation. People in debt try to consolidate all their payments into one monthly amount to one company. Rather like that, we follow this one summary statement that fulfills all the requirements of God: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We can’t live such a life in our own strength. And we don’t have to. The good news is always that we are not alone and that we don’t need to be afraid. Whether we’re gathered in a little group of two or three, in a megachurch filled with thousands, or anywhere in between, Jesus has promised to be among us. Prayer holds us up, as do our sisters and brothers. Faith in God’s purpose gives us hope. And so we can go out to love.

© 2008 Tom Cheatham

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“Owe no one anything, except to love one another…. Love does no harm to a neighbor” (Romans 13:8a, 10a, based on NRSV).

In last week’s post, I explored how Paul talks about actual debt and money in the text from Romans. How we spend our funds and the amount of debt we have are moral and ethical issues.

But even if none of us had any mortgages and paid for everything we got with cash and barter, there would still be a debt crisis in our land. Because every one of us owes, or ought to owe, a debt of love to our neighbors. No collectors call if we don’t pay. Our credit rating with the credit bureaus stays in the high numbers. But there are other, more dire consequences. Ironically, if we don’t pay this debt, our lives will be impoverished. We’ll be ruined at the deepest level of our being. We could have millions of dollars in the bank, but you and I would be morally and spiritually bankrupt.

We’re called on to pay this debt frequently. In fact, it comes due not just once a month or on Sundays, but every minute, every hour. The bill varies. Sometimes it’s really big, and we wince at the cost. Other times we can pay it with the smallest of coins.

But it’s an urgent responsibility. See, love is in danger of extinction worse than the polar bears or some other creature we hear about. We live in a malicious and mean-spirited society. Everywhere, including in the churches, I see prejudice and hatred, lying and backstabbing, the desire to get revenge and promote fear. Paul calls on us to stand against the culture and make the decision to love.

Let’s be very, very clear. Love is not a warm fuzzy, though who doesn’t like a soft kitten or cuddly puppy? He’s not talking about romantic attraction, though that is one of the greatest powers in the world. Love doesn’t mean never having to say you’re sorry, if you remember the old movie line. In fact, probably just the opposite. No. Love is a verb. And we all remember our grammar. A verb is an action word.

Paul sums up what he has in mind with one sentence: “Love does no harm to a neighbor.” Just seven words in English and in the original Greek. But unpacking that brief sentence is complicated.

A key question, of course, is “Who is my neighbor?” The Bible’s definition is quite broad, and the Greek word also means “fellow human being.” Certainly we think of those of the church and our immediate community. But is not anyone and everyone on this planet in some sense our neighbor, especially those in need?

And how can I know if I’m doing no harm? We would not think of striking and injuring someone. But are my spending and consumption hurting someone across the globe because the products I buy are made in a sweatshop and my neighbor in another country is thus working under miserable conditions so I can have a product? If I drive carelessly or when I’m angry, could I not very well harm my neighbor who is also driving his or her car or simply crossing the street? What if my off-hand, insensitive remark deeply wounds someone else?

Tough stuff. Enough to drive you crazy. Or to the cross.

Next week: Some help in answering the questions.

© 2008 Tom Cheatham