(Adapted from the Revised Common Lectionary for 9/6/20)
Fulfilling the Law Through Love
Rom 13:8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. 11 Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (ESV)
Daniel Day-Lewis is an English actor best known for his role in Last of the Mohicans and Lincoln. He’s considered one of the greatest actors of all time and is known for being a method actor. In his acting practice, he immerses himself so deeply in a role that he essentially “is” the person—in dress, speech, habits—the whole time the movie is being filmed. For months, he basically “puts on”—lives as his character.
This led to some interesting anecdotes from people who worked with him. Among the highlights:
- He played a paraplegic and had to be carried around the set or used a wheelchair.
- He got pneumonia playing a 19th-century character because he wouldn’t wear a modern coat in the cold.
- He sent text messages to Sally Field as Abraham Lincoln.
- He taught himself to speak Czech so his character would have a believable Czech accent.
- He built canoes by hand and trapped and skinned animals for his role as a Native American.
…and there are many more. Over his career, he became so at one with his characters that he would take on their attributes, live in their skin. This led to some of the best acting in history, and some of the most memorable roles of the last fifty years.
Twice in our passage above from Romans 13, Paul tells us to “put on” something:
- Verse 12: So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.
- Verse 14: But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Like Daniel Day-Lewis puts on the characteristics of the person he is to portray, we are to “put on” the armor of light and the attributes of Christ until it becomes who we are. Over the past several weeks we have spent time considering the way that we know ourselves truly is by knowing God, and in knowing the triune God we also learn who we are. Our identity is a central theme for Romans and all of Paul’s writings. But our new identity in Chris is to be a permanent change, not a temporary “put-on.”
Let’s look at our identity in Christ as it is described in Romans 13. Paul describes our change in position with God bringing us to our change — like Day-Lewis with his amazing acting career— in character.
Let’s look at three ideas today:
- the terms of salvation
- The time of salvation
- The task of salvation.
But before that, we need to discuss the word “salvation.” For Paul and the rest of the New Testament, salvation didn’t only refer to the transactional discussion of going to heaven or hell. Salvation is a lifelong process, involving our “saving” on ethical, moral, emotional and spiritual levels. Salvation works through us over years and culminates in our union with Christ after death or at his return. Reading salvation in this holistic, three-dimensional understanding helps the New Testament—and life itself—make more sense.
First, the terms of salvation.
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:8 ESV)
Earlier in the chapter Paul goes into his famous discussion of how the government is appointed by God. He ends that, transitioning into our passage with a discussion about paying taxes: “owe nothing to anyone.”
This discussion led to centuries of debate over how to react to and live under authorities, especially when they are immoral and oppressive. Though that isn’t our subject here, it’s an important conversation no matter what period of history we live in. The important undercurrent in this discussion is that the government is appointed by God, controlled by God, and entirely at his mercy. This was an extremely scandalous thing to send in a letter to Rome—the epicenter of Caesar’s rule. Everyone in the empire was required to not only obey Caesar, but also to worship him in the emperor cult as a god.
Paul pulls the rug out from under this by saying not only that Caesar is not a god, but that he is entirely the instrument of God. He is simply God’s tool. Whether or not he knows it, God can give and take the empire to Caesar as he sees fit. Paying taxes was an issue for those under the Jewish law. It was a point of contention with all occupied people (still is!), but especially for Jews who tried to distance themselves from Roman culture. Paul ends this discussion of politics with almost the throw-away statement: pay your taxes, owe nothing to anyone.
That’s because it doesn’t matter. The empire doesn’t matter. None of these trappings of human striving that seem important matter in the end. Pay your taxes here, but your real citizenship is elsewhere. Paul then goes into this section about love:
For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:9-10 ESV)
Love your neighbor, love God—this sums up the Law. Does that sound familiar? Paul is quoting Jesus. He’s saying that LOVE sums up the law and covers the law. He could write a dictionary sized volume on how to treat your neighbor (don’t lie, cheat, steal, ridicule, cut off in traffic) or he, like Jesus, could simply say love your neighbor. Paul is continuing, subtly, his undercutting of Roman authority and the cult of the empire. One of the titles they gave Caesar was Lord, sometimes calling him “Lord of Lords,” and Paul ends this section by reiterating the full title: the Lord Jesus Christ. He also tells them that Caesar is God’s plaything and then gives the rules for the true city where they are true citizens: Love God, love neighbor.
He undermines the authorities of the day and quotes what Jesus said were the two greatest commandments: Love God, love others. I saw a church sponsored T-shirt this week that read: “You have 2 things to do today…” The intent is to spark a conversation as to what those two things consist of.
In his discussion of our identity in Christ, Paul takes the corner pillars of their lives—the Roman empire and the Jewish law—and says that Jesus is greater, stronger and better than these things. They are only instruments in his scarred hands. What are the pillars of identity in our world that we need to look past? How do we need to look beyond these powers that be to the Lord behind them who holds it all in his hands?
Your true identity is not an American. You are not a Republican. You are not a Democrat. You are a Christian, a child of God, adopted into his royal family. You are all those other things second; you are a child of God first. Adjust for your own country, obviously, using citizenship or political affiliation. You are not identified by your job or any of your relationships, and you are certainly not identified by your past. This fundamental shift in WHO you are will lead to changes in HOW you are. When you come to Christ, your first question shouldn’t be “What do I do now?” but “Who am I now?”
So, the terms of salvation: your cosmic identity has changed fundamentally, you are no longer your own, nor anyone else’s, but Christ’s.
Second, the time of salvation.
Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. (Romans 13:11-12 ESV)
The Greeks had two words for time. Chronos—from which we get the word “chronology,”—which simply means the passage of time—second by second and day by day. The other word, kairos, refers to the moment of decision, the time for action—it means time in which we should be moving. This is the word Paul uses here, “Besides this, you know the kairos.” You know that this is the time of action, the time to get going. So, not only has knowing Christ changed our identity, he has changed our timeline.
The night is far gone; the day is at hand. (verse 12 ESV)
The kingdom is here and now, the kingdom is on its way as well. It is already, but not yet. Paul is calling them to realize that even Rome won’t last forever, the Lord himself is in charge of the times. We are in the time of promise, and we wait for the promise to be fulfilled as well.
What does it mean that even the most powerful and imposing of our accomplishments, our trials and our tribulations, is temporary? How can we wake up to that reality—the fact that the moment, the kairos, is now and not somewhere far off?
Think of Howard Hughes, one of the most famous billionaires and richest men in history. He made millions into billions; his fortune in one-dollar bills would cover 28 square miles! Yet his mental health collapsed. At the end, he cowered in hotel rooms unable to even look out the window. We can’t judge the state of his soul, but it seems that he, and so many of us, don’t look beyond these towers and palaces we build to the powerful realities behind them, and the fact that all of them will fall eventually.
Paul says to the Christians in Rome, “Wake up! You live as a child of God in a world that will pass away when his kingdom is fully established.” He is already Lord, and we live in the time between the first coming of Jesus and the second.
Third, the task of salvation
So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:12-14 ESV)
So, the terms of salvation discuss our change in identity. The time of salvation is now, calling us to wake up because the day has dawned. We come to the task of salvation—we did the WHO and the WHEN and now we come to the WHAT. We always get jumpy about “tasks” when it comes to our faith because it sounds like “works.” We get worried that we are referring to working our way into heaven. But we are already past that.
Heb 7:25 Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (ESV)
Christ doesn’t merely help us, He saves us!
“We tend to operate as if Hebrews 7:25 says that Jesus ‘is able to save for the most part those who draw near to God through him.’ But the salvation Christ brings is panteles…” (a word denoting comprehensiveness, completeness, exhaustive wholeness, as in PAN-DEMIC.) “In the flow of thought in Hebrews 7, there appears to be a special focus on the time aspect of this salvation. Because Jesus ‘holds his priesthood permanently’ and ‘continues forever’ in it (v. 24), unlike previous priests who all died (v. 23), Christ ‘is able to save to the uttermost.’ Our presence in God’s good favor and family will never sputter and die, like an engine running out of gas.” (Gentle and Lowly, the Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers, Dane Ortland, p, 82,83)
Our identity is changed by our faith in and connection with Christ. Nothing can change that. We are invited to live the deeper and better life of knowing Christ.
I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:10 ESV)
Jesus calls us to this life—he knows how life works and human beings work best. It was all his idea. He became like we are so that we might become like he is. He put on sin and loss and even death so that we could put on him.
As we act like him, we become more like him. But it’s not a matter of earning salvation—it’s a matter of experiencing the deeper life in Christ.
May God help us “put on the Lord, Jesus Christ.”
Small Group Discussion Questions
Questions for sermon:
- Have you ever acted in a play? What was it like to pretend to be someone else? (Share stories)
- We talked first about how knowing Jesus is a change in identity. What does it mean to focus first on who we are before we focus on what we do?
- We talked about how knowing Jesus changes our timeline. Does it change daily life to know that everything—good or bad—is temporary? Does that give us a kind of freedom?
- We talked about the task of salvation being to “put on” Christ like a character in a play, until it changes who we are. What does this mean? Do you have an example of this in your own life?