This scripture lesson hit me hard today. For one thing, Paul was asking his readers to wake up from their sleep. Listen, I am not a morning person. I frequently get a burst of productive energy around midnight to 2AM. Often, after visiting my baby boy in the NICU or getting my daughters to bed, I finally have some alone time to catch up on work. Going to bed late really makes mornings a struggle. And here’s Paul, trying to rub it in my face by using the image of waking up, waking up to the way of Christ, the way of love. Paul urged those early Christians to wake up because the Roman Empire, as well as hateful people, were out to squash Jesus’ legacy and eradicate his mission. The scary and uncertain nighttime needed to end. And so, the Roman church was being called to wake up, because, for Paul, the darkness was over and a new dawn of love was beginning.
Paul also mentioned debt in our passage today. I personally dislike being in debt about as much as I dislike getting up in the morning after a late-night working session. When Amanda and I were newly married, we participated in Financial Peace University classes at South Main Baptist Church in Houston in order to learn strategies for avoiding debt. And while I have major disagreements with Dave Ramsey when it comes to theology, his teachings on finances helped shape the way Amanda and I live. I’m probably a bit neurotic about paying off the credit card every couple of weeks; about driving older, paid for vehicles; and buying gently used items for our home and kids when possible. You see, debt makes me feel heavy and less able to focus on the good and wonderful and charitable things in my life.
Debt is something about which we all, I think, have some sense of trepidation and fear. Debt can weigh us down emotionally. We don’t want to be in debt as that gives someone or something power over us. Student loans, car payments, mortgages, credit card bills… debt is scary. And it’s especially so for those who have been the prey of payday lenders and title companies. My friend, Gordon, who is on the board for Faith in Texas, freely shares his own personal story about losing everything, including his family, to the effects of payday lenders. By feeling heavy with debt’s worry and shame, he wasn’t able to freely and generously give charity and love. He eventually woke up from his bad dream and now helps others escape from predatory lenders.
But we are seeing, that even today, federal organizations don’t want interest rates capped at 36%. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) has proposed a rule that will allow rent-a-bank schemes to evade state interest rate caps. This is just another way payday and auto title lenders are working to harm consumers throughout the United States. This does not show love of neighbor. Faith in Texas, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Alliance of Baptists, all organizations with which Royal Lane has worked, have ministries to make sure that the love of Christ is shown to the desperate and the poor by standing against and pushing for capped interest rates and strong regulations of payday lenders.
So, debt is a potent image today, just as it was in Paul’s time. Paul knew debt was a strong symbol for the new Jesus followers. Debt for first century Christians, and especially those with Jewish heritage, was a violation of the religious law. You see, usury, or charging interest, was prohibited by God’s law. It was wrong to be in debt to someone else in Jewish tradition because it was taking advantage of the poor in order to squeeze more money out of them. So, Paul’s use of the image of being in debt in this letter to the Romans was profound. He said, “Don’t owe anything to anyone, EXCEPT the debt of mutual love. If you love your neighbor, you see, you have fulfilled the law.” Paul took the harshness of debt and turned it on its head. He said that being in debt to someone because you love them isn’t breaking Jewish law, it is actually fulfilling the law, the law of the Spirit.
And as you can see from our scripture this morning, Paul was basically simplifying the law of God, the ten commandments, into a new law of the Spirit. Paul was saying that through Christ, the law of God had been simplified into one easy to understand idea: Love God and love others. That is what Paul was trying to convey to these Roman Christians. They needed to wake up, to stop sleeping when it came to loving their neighbors. They were being asked to wake up to the relationships happening around them and to recognize that loving others was the law of the spirit and that being in debt to love was what it meant to follow Christ.
And these early Roman Christians were supposed to be different than the Empire, those in power, those hurting other people around them. Paul was asking for Christians to wake up, get up, and get moving, in order to continue giving themselves over in love. No more sleeping on the job, Christians. No more hiding from the injustices and the hatred in the world. Christians were and are supposed to be on the frontlines in showing the world how to love our neighbors.
British scholar N.T. Wright told a story about waking up when he was younger. He said, “When I was at boarding school, I often used to wake up early on summer mornings as daylight came streaming in from four or five o’clock onwards. I often used to think how silly it was not to get up then. Frequently the day would be bright and sunny until about the middle of the morning, when clouds would roll in and spoil it. Often it would rain later on, despite the bright early sunshine. As a keen sportsman, I used to get cross at having games spoiled by rain when I knew that, if we’d been out playing before breakfast, we might have had several hours in the sunshine. We could always have done our schoolwork once the rain set in. Why wouldn’t my friends wake up so that we could go out and start the match?”
And this is what Paul was asking of his readers in our passage for today. He was asking them to get ahead on their day, to stop sleeping in, to not just go along with the complacency and selfishness that was around them. Paul wanted these early Christians to know that a new age was dawning and that they were being called to be wide-eyed and open-hearted as a new world of love was rising. A new and changed world was about to begin and Paul recognized that these first century Christ followers needed to lean into a spirit of love.
But how do we have the strength and the stamina to spread a spirit of love in a hostile world? Paul said we are to “put on” the Lord Jesus Christ. When we do so, we are equipped to avoid the heaviness and hurts of the world so that we can share love freely and generously. N.T. Wright goes on to talk about what it means to put on Christ. He says, “’Putting on’ comes from the night/day contrast once more. Here we are, getting up while the rest of the world still thinks it’s night-time; we must put our clothes on.”
I wonder what it might be like for us to wake up and begin to clothe ourselves with the spirit of love. What might we do in our lives to clothe ourselves in love? Does it mean learning how to forgive even when we are angry and stubborn? Does it mean that we wrap ourselves in the words of Jesus and read the gospels every day? Does it mean we remember our baptisms in which we were literally immersed totally in water and raised to walk in new life, with new baptismal clothes revealing that we are dripping wet with God’s love? Does it mean we work to continuously find ways to tear down the structures and systems that keep people under the thumb of the Empire so that all people can bask in the refreshing light and love of the new morning? Maybe. And I know it is difficult to spread a spirit of love in a world that seems to be in the long loneliness of night. But, for those of us that are sluggish in the mornings, it’s time to wipe our eyes, stretch our limbs, and put on Christ, clothing ourselves in love.
The Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, who sought to bring peace around the time of the first Christians, must have seen and experienced people clothed in love. Because he talked over and over again about the best way to influence and inspire the population, not with force, but by example. He claimed that if you wanted to be free from the tyranny of other people’s opinions and bad behavior, you needed to set a better example. Modern day prophet and poet, Maya Angelou, said, “if you know better, be better.” And when we see places where love is not manifested and where love of neighbor is not made clear, we are to be better and reveal a spirit of love, like a brand label on our clothing. Would people be able to see that we are Christians, not by how we hurt people, make fun of people, exclude people, and dehumanize people, but how we love our neighbors openly, passionately, and unconditionally?
The world is watching. The watching world of the first century should’ve seen something different in those early Christians. The world is still watching to see if we, as followers of Christ today, are clothed in love. And I hope that the world can see something different about us and how we have “awaken,” that we have draped ourselves in love, and that we only have one debt and one allegiance… and that is to Jesus Christ, the one who took on the debts of the world, out of an abundance of love, so that God’s realm could be seen clearly and lived faithfully.
Rev. Karen Baker-Fletcher comments that we tend to do a lot of things that take attention off of God and God’s love. And that if we keep the attention of the world on God’s love, then salvation has come near. She says putting on Jesus means, “that we need only stop doing the many things that take our attention away from God to experience God’s presence and to live fully in God’s presence. ‘Putting on Jesus Christ is Paul’s antidote to harmful, exploiting, and violent behavior. Since verse 8 directs Christians to owe one another nothing except the ‘debt of love,’ then one might say that putting on Jesus Christ is clothing oneself and the Christian community in the ‘debt of love.’”
How might we be surrounded and overwhelmed by the debt of love this week? What are ways we need to wake up, put on the garment of love, and help bring salvation to our world? I hope that we continue to live in the law of love so that we might show others that the night is over, that we are waking up, and that we have shed all of the egotistical, hurtful, destructive things in our lives in order to be in debt to Christ. The church has a corporate responsibility to end all forms of exploitation and abuse and pain and cruelty in this world, just as Paul hoped the early Christians would do two thousand years ago. So, wake up, dear friends! It’s time to take on a debt of love and bring salvation to all people.