Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
What do you owe? To whom do you owe it? When I ask that question, most assume I’m speaking about money. According to the Bank of Canada, the average Canadian owes over $1.70 for every dollar of income they earn per year, after taxes. For most Canadians debt is a fact of life, at least at some point. We borrow to buy houses, cars, smart phones, food, medicine, clothes, appliances. College students take on staggering debts to finance their education. Churches borrow immense sums to erect buildings. Debt can be a tool that allows people to smooth out their spending throughout their life. Besides monetary debt we recognise that there are other types of debt. Consider personal debt for instance. If someone does you a favour, you may reply by saying, “I owe you one!” Or, the opposite might happen. They may tell you, “You owe me one.” Debt comes in various forms. St. Paul in our epistle reading talks about a certain debt that all humanity owes. There is a massive debt which is always owed and can never be settled. In fact, our Christian life and conduct, and our duties to society have their basis in this debt which we owe.
We owe everyone a debt of love
Paul says love is a continual obligation, one that can never be fully paid. The debt that we owe is to always be loving. There will always be a need for us to love. Just suppose that today I love you as I love myself. Even supposing I were to do that, when I wake up tomorrow morning I will owe you exactly the same debt as I owed you this morning, love. This debt of love we will constantly owe and constantly pay. The debt of love never ends. To whom do we owe this debt of love?
We are indebted to love one each other. This doesn’t refer only to other Christians but to all people, to our fellow humans, to our neighbours. To love our neighbour is exactly what God wants us to do. It is fundamentally the right thing to do. That’s why Second Table of the Law is summed up in one very simple concept, “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Rom. 13:9). That isn’t just about loving humanity in general. You must love every human being whom God specifically places in your life. It will include our parents. For those who are married, this will always include husband or wife, children if there are any. It will include the fellow members of our local church and the people you encounter in your day to day life. And it will include all sorts of other people, without distinction. You owe every single person you meet a debt of love. Love is how God wants us are to treat one another. This kind of love seeks no ill and works no evil against anyone. This kind of love is what God wants for all people of all time.
We owe obedience to our government
But, we continue to live an a cold and uncaring world. It is filled with corruption, far too many unjust killings, unjust wars, murder, riots, racism, hatred, greed, and exploitation! Our world’s ruptured relationship to God has lead to a steep decline into sin. Instead of loving our neighbours as we ought, we are self-centred. Since we couldn’t be trusted to make good on our debt of love, government was established to preserve our common life together. Some may call government a “necessary evil,” but government isn’t evil. It is a good gift from God to keep us in check, to preserve civil order, to provide protection, to judge disputes, to keep us from infringing on our neighbour’s peace, life, and property. Just like we owe a debt of love to our neighbours, so also we owe our obedience to the government for our neighbour’s sake.
Now, we don’t like this. We tend to want to the rule the roost for ourselves. Obedience to the government is a tough pill to swallow. We see it in our kids when they defiantly say “no” to a parent’s command. You may even think the little rebel looks cute when they try to be sneaky about not doing what you told them. There’s an “inner anarchist” is in us too. We do not really like submitting to the rule of law. We tend to resist order, government, and all forms of authority. We want to write our own rules, determine what is best for ourselves. Even when we do obey, oftentimes it’s out of fear of being punished! This attitude can even be found in Christians, because sin clings to us until our dying breath. This is why we need God’s gift of government. The government has God’s authority to punish the wicked with temporal punishments like fines and jail time and, in certain cases, even death. Of course this doesn’t mean that the government has always done a stellar job at it. And there are times when the government steps beyond its mandate and we must obey God rather than men (Acts. 5:29).
How does this work out in real life? Consider for a moment the commandment, “You shall not murder” (Rom. 13:9). “What does this mean? We should fear and love God, and so we should not endanger our neighbour’s life, nor cause him any harm, but help and befriend him in every necessity of life” (SC I.10, Tappert). There is a pandemic raging in this world. God has given us government to preserve our physical well-being. Our debt of love to our neighbour moves us to refrain from doing anything that might pass on the coronavirus, because it might endanger someone’s life. We must avoid anything that could potentially spread it. Instead, you owe everyone the opposite. If you love your neighbour you’ll help and do what you’re able to preserve our neighbour’s physical well-being. For most of us, that’s a sin of omission. We may not hurt or harm our neighbour, but we have not gone out of our way to do them any good.
Our debt of love obligates us to avoid endangering or harming our neighbour’s bodily life. That also happens to be one the most basic functions of government. The government is God’s servant with the duty to preserve bodily life. Governments around the world, including our own, are desperately trying to preserve the bodily life and physical well-being of their citizens. This is not some sort of conspiracy to take away our civil liberties. This is not a nefarious plot to shut down churches. This is exactly the reason why God has instituted governments. The government has placed certain restrictions upon us, like caps in attendance, limits on singing, physical distancing, masks, for the express purpose of preserving bodily life. We owe a debt of love to our neighbours. In our situation that means, listening to our government because the government is following the commandment to not hurt or harm our neighbour. Not following these protocols endangers our neighbours’ lives, and could cause them harm. God threatens with eternal punishment any who would resist the government in its duty to preserve bodily life (Rom. 13:2). That means, if you reject the covid restrictions, you will face God’s judgment.
Love seeks our neighbours well-being. Love for your neighbour is what motivates you to follow the Government’s pandemic guidelines. This has nothing whatsoever to do with people keeping the law in order to earn either God’s favour or any special status. This is a debt we can never pay, not just because we always owe it, but also because we fail to love one another. Our self-centred attitude doesn’t feel like loving our neighbour. Our rebellious and independent spirit wants to insist upon our individual rights. Ultimately, love of neighbour and obedience to government are about owing God, that is, doing his will. Since there is not a single person who could produce this perfect love, we have need of another righteousness. That unplayable debt, needs to be fully paid by someone else.
That righteousness is found in Christ Jesus our Lord, who came down to assume your every debt. He lived a perfect life and fulfilled the debt of love, for you. He healed the sick. He raised the dead. He gave to the poor. He went through the land preaching the Gospel and doing good to his neighbour. He became a citizen of this world, under a less than perfect government, for you. Jesus was subject to the government of His day; He obeyed the laws of His land. He perfectly honoured father and mother and every civil authority that was placed over Him. He loved his neighbour as himself, no, he loved his neighbour even more than himself. Seeing us in such a miserable state, he was moved with love, and he gave up his own life on our behalf. Jesus stood before the Roman governor, falsely charged with treason, and declared that, even though Pilate was about to execute him, his authority came from God. He may have been the victim of gross injustice, but God used it all for the salvation of the world, for your salvation. He went to a bloody death to pay back what we owe, so that we can stand before God with sins forgiven. He did that for you. Out of his love.
Because Jesus Christ assumed your debt and paid it upon the Cross, God promises you mercy. He forgives your selfishness and rebellion. When we trust God’s promised mercy, we are accounted righteous, just as if we had fulfilled the law ourselves. God works in us, so that we may begin truly loving our neighbours as ourselves. We may not love our neighbour perfectly, but because we trust in Jesus, our imperfect love pleases God. God desires you to love your neighbours as a response to his love for you in Christ. In Christ, God has shown us mercy and love, and we respond to God’s mercy and love, by loving our neighbours as ourselves.
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.