The Debt of Love
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
September 4, 2005
Scripture: Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18: 15-20
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” –Romans 13:8
Our theme today is authority and governance within the Christian community. This may not seem a very interesting topic but recent events in New Orleans have shown us once again how vital the matter of governance is for human life, and how serious its failure can be. Negligent governors are clearly responsible for a large measure of the death and destruction that is taking place there. Unwise, indeed criminally irresponsible, policy decisions at all levels of government left the city unprotected against natural disasters that were well-known threats, and government response was shamefully lackadaisical. The responses of the foreign press are interesting; one British source said that there was reluctance in Britain to take emotional account of our suffering because while people respond warmly to another’s need they are embarrassed to witness another’s shame. The world is ashamed of us, and our government is only slowly and reluctantly realizing what there is to be ashamed of. The principals seemed reluctant to interrupt their vacations, and painfully slow to express any sympathy for the poor who bear the brunt of the suffering. Imagine if New Orleans had been wiped out like this by a terrorist bomb, how our leaders would be fulminating against the perpetrators and preparing to invade another foreign land, preparing perhaps to send the Louisiana National Guard to Teheran.
Enough of that! We are appalled and ashamed enough as it is. The Apostle Paul tells us in this chapter 13 of Romans to obey the government and pay all our taxes. He wrote this before the Roman Empire made Christians underclass trash and began sporadic legal and systematic persecution of the Church, before the emperor Nero had torched the poor section of Rome to clear a space urban gentrification, then burned Christians on stakes set up along the great highways for perpetrating his crime. Thus the poor paid twice; they were rendered homeless and then executed en mass for destroying their own homes. (It is disappointing to note how little attitudes have changed down the millennia). When Paul wrote this he could still be proud of being a Roman citizen and could still appeal to Caesar’s justice in Rome for protection against Jewish persecution in Jerusalem.
We cannot endorse him unequivocally here because we live post-Nero, and we know that at best the state gives us an uneasy, but nevertheless vital order, but is always capable of gross neglect, cruel persecution and even systematic mass murder. The Nazi-collaborating, mainly Protestant, clergy of the Third Reich, quoted Romans 13 relentlessly to encourage support of the Nazi state. We Christians now know that obedience to Christ demands a dialectical attitude to the state, a “yes but…” stance, and that was why I resisted the flying of the flag of the USA over the Woodside Church in my day, an arrangement that changed the very day I left.
We cannot endorse Paul unequivocally, in this way, because we know too much about the nature and practice of the state, and it seems Paul too realized that the state is a brittle reed not to be leaned on too heavily, even though we pay for it and use it, an institution to which we say a soft and tentative “Yes” and a loud and emphatic “No!” He had seen how the state working by law had murdered Jesus, crucified God’s Christ, and exalted raw power over humble love. He knew that the government was made up mostly of self-serving liars, cruel hypocrites and cold psychopaths. Therefore the true debt we owe is not tax to the state but love to one another in emulation of Jesus. In his death Jesus reveals that the truth of human relations is not law but love. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom 13:10).” The state works by law, Christ works by love. The state takes, and may or may not give in return, Jesus gives, and gives. Therefore, Paul sums up, “…put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (13:14).”
We hear and understand what Paul is saying, and we know how impossible it is to realize, how much of a miracle the mutual love of a community that needs no law is, and at this point our Gospel passage becomes relevant. Matthew 18:15-20 is about church governance and polity, and it reflects more the needs of a developing community than the teaching of a wandering holy man and his twelve disciples. To interpret this passage aright we must put it in its historical context, which is the early church trying to get organized, trying to set up a procedure for dealing with the divisiveness of diversity. Who decides who is right in disputed matters? Matthews church sets up in this passage a procedure for resolving disputes: first try to resolve the matter privately, then take it to the elders of the church before witnesses and then if there is no reconciliation expel the recalcitrant ones. Up to this point it is just a practical procedure for peaceful co-existence, but the logic moves on. Whatever the church decides on earth is ratified in heaven, because whenever two or three come together in Christ’s name, he himself is there and their decision is Christ’s decision.
This is the fatal step into idolatry, the self-idolization of the Church. The church claims the authority of Christ for its pragmatic rulings, and expulsion under these circumstances is condemnation to Hell. This sort of self-understanding is what separates me personally from the churches of Rome and Constantinople, despite the fact that I find most of their doctrine impeccable, and hugely more consistent than our Protestant meanderings.
But having said that one must admit that the reality of mutual love in the Christian community is a very rare event, and that avoidance of self-idolization does not effect mutual love. I experienced Protestant congregations as on the whole the cruelest, least loving places I was ever in, despite the loving individuals I met there. It seemed to me that the average congregation exemplifies the opposite of the principle of emergence. The whole is always less than the sum of its parts. Let two or more individually loving church people come together in a committee and it is not Jesus Christ whom one encounters in their midst, but his opposite. We have all been part of this weird anomaly, that the more we speak of love the less we show of it…. at least in church communities. For that reason I am more and more reluctant to advise people to join churches. Rather go, I say, to some large cathedral where you can worship Christ without having to encounter at close hand the Church Christians.
I do not say this to blame anyone, or rather, I emphatically include myself in the class of those to be blamed, and so must conclude this sermon at a loss. I do not know why church congregations are so lacking in love, why they beat each other up with the strictures of law and moral blackmail, why they are so unforgiving, why they claim so much for their own authority, as if when two of them get together Jesus and not simple gossip is between them.
Let me try to stop my loss somewhat by quoting another text from Matthew, which I believe is much nearer to the mind of Jesus than the authority- mad text set for today in 18:15-20. In 23:8-12, part of an attack by Jesus on the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, he says,” But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher and you are all brothers and sisters. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one father who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”