“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”+
We have come once more to the beginning of the church year: the first Sunday of Advent. This season is a time of preparation for our annual celebration of Christmas in a few weeks, the memorial of Christ’s having come among us two thousand years ago; but it is also a time of preparation for the second coming of Christ, which as I noted a few weeks ago, and as our Gospel reading today reminds us, will come at an unexpected hour — and so we are called, like the Scouts, to “Be Prepared.”
Over these next four Sundays I will explore with you several factors in this preparedness, this “state of readiness” in which our Lord calls us to be. And I want to begin this week with the age-old tension between the Law and the Spirit of Love, emphasizing Saint Paul’s teaching that love fulfills the law.
Many of you here work in various aspects of the field of medicine, as nurses, technicians and care-givers; and as I’ve often reminded you, our church has a long history of connection with the medical arts, including having the inventor of the modern stethoscope among our early lay leaders. So you may know about the ancient Greek and Roman physicians Hippocrates and Galen, and the traditional covenant made by doctors and other health care workers going back to ancient times. One cornerstone of this tradition is the counsel to “do no harm.”
That is well and good as far as it goes — certainly that is why we trust ourselves to the care of physicians, and often literally place our lives in their hands. But promising to do no harm is not enough for a follower of Christ. Our promise is not just to refrain from doing wrong, but to pursue the right; as Saint Paul says, and as our Collect today reminds us, not only to lay aside the works of darkness, but to put on the armor of light.
It seems so simple as Paul describes it. All those commandments about not doing wrong — you know, the Big Ten, of which he names four in our reading today (adultery, murder, theft, and envy)— all of these are summed up, he says, following Jesus own teaching, in the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself.” For love naturally tends not only to do no harm, but to do good. And it does this without additional instructions or commandments. Goodness bubbles up naturally from love — just as the perverse will to do wrong can be provoked and incited by too heavy a reliance on law.
Perhaps you remember the old song, “Why did the children put beans in their ears?” You may also recall the answer to the question: “They did it because we said No!” Such is the perversity of human nature that we sometimes do — not only what we know we should not do — but what we really don’t want to do, simply because someone has told us not to do it. The minute the law is laid down, we have an urge to break it. Saint Paul described this process in his Letter to the Romans, and went on to say that the only way out was to return to love as the basis for human good — not more law. The more you lay down the law, the greater the natural orneriness of people will percolate to the surface — so the best approach is to appeal not to law, but to love.
For example, the autobahn, the German highway system, even though it has no upper speed limit, has fewer fatal accidents than our own highway system, with its strictly enforced laws against speeding. The rules of the German highway system are based on respect for other drivers and care in driving, not some arbitrary and external limitation on how fast you can drive.
Let me give you another example of this principle at work. The nineteenth century evangelist H A Ironside tells a story of his missionary work out in the wild west. He had a little school for young Indian men and women, who came to his home in California from the various tribes in Arizona. One of these was a young Navajo man, who joined the Bible class one evening. The group was discussing just this question of the Law and the Spirit of Love, and the thoughtful young man told this story. "Well, my friends, I have been listening very carefully, because I am here to learn all I can in order to take it back to my people. I do not understand all that you are talking about, and I do not think you do yourselves. But concerning this law and love business, let me see if I can make it clear. I think it is like this. When Mr Ironside brought me from my home we took the longest railroad journey I ever took. We got out at Barstow, and there I saw the most beautiful railroad station and hotel I have ever seen. I walked all around and saw at one end of the station a sign, 'Do not spit here.' I looked at that sign and then looked down at the ground and saw that many had spitted there, and before I could even think what I am doing I find I have spitted myself! Isn't that strange when the sign says, 'Do not spit here'?
Then I come to Oakland and go to the home of the lady who invited me to dinner today and I am in the nicest home I have ever been in. Such beautiful furniture and carpets, I hate even to step on them. I sink into a comfortable chair, and the lady says, 'Now, John, you stay here while I go out and see whether the maid has dinner ready.' I look around at the beautiful pictures, at the grand piano, and I walk all around that room. I am looking for a sign; and the sign I am looking for is, 'Do not spit here,' but I look around that beautiful sitting room, and cannot find a sign like this. I think, 'What a pity when this is such a beautiful home to have people spitting all over it — too bad they don't put up a sign!' So I look all over the carpet, but find that nobody has spitted there! And I wouldn’t think of spitting myself, the place is so beautiful and lovely.
So isn’t it strange that where the sign says, 'Do not spit,' a lot of people spit. But where there is no sign at all, in that beautiful home, nobody spit. Now I understand! That sign is the law, but inside the home it is the spirit of love. They love their beautiful home, and they want to keep it clean. They do not need a sign to tell them so. I think that explains this law and love business."
My friends, that does explain it. You will not — in spite of what the song says — hurt the one you truly love. For as Saint Paul told the church of Corinth, in that passage read at so many weddings:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
Love never ends, my friends, love never ends. As the young Navajo might have said, love doesn’t need a sign to tell it what not to do.
At this time of the year, we cast our minds upon the greatest love possible: the love of God shown to us in the incarnation of his blessed Son. God gave himself to us, fully and completely. This is the love we are called upon to emulate, this is the love we are called upon to express to one another, loving each other as God loved us— not because we’ve promised to “do no harm” but because the love we feel for each other in Christ leads us naturally to do what is right and good.
So as we approach this Christmastide, my beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, let us treat each other with the respect that young Navajo instinctively felt for the beautiful furnishings in that welcoming home — for surely we are worth much more than satin sofas and grand pianos! Let us treat each other with the deference and care that German motorists are schooled in before they ever sit behind the wheel — surely we are worth more than even the flashiest BMW! Let us treat each other with the same respect and dignity with which we too wish to be treated, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and giving thanks to God for the opportunity to join with one another in worship and praise of the One who is the source of all light and love, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+