Many years ago, when I was still in high school, my family and I took a road trip out to western Nebraska and South Dakota. We saw the Badlands and Toadstool Park; we drove up into the Black Hills, visited Mount Rushmore, and got to see all kinds of cool stuff. We had taken trips out there before, but this particular trip was different, because it wasn’t just the four of us. For the first time, my dad’s then-lady-friend had come along with us, which was a big deal. And while I don’t remember my dad explicitly saying as much, it was very much understood that the three of us kids were to be on our best behavior.
Unfortunately, at the time, my brother Ben and I were in the middle of a huge, ongoing fight. I have no memory whatsoever of what we were fighting about, and I’m not totally sure that I knew at the time either. It may just have been that we were both in the middle of our peak “sullen, angsty teenager” years.
Whatever the case, I could hardly stand even looking at my brother without being overcome with fury, let alone being stuck with him in a confined space for hours at a time. Ben and I mostly did our best to keep our distance from one another, which is pretty hard when you’re both stuck inside a car. And I’m sure you can imagine that our bad attitudes did not make us very pleasant company for most of the trip.
By the time we started wrapping up our vacation, I had started feeling really guilty about that. Ben’s and my conflict with each other had also negatively impacted the people that we cared about; and it probably hadn’t left a very good impression of either one of us. And I guess Ben must have been feeling the same way – because the one clearest memory I have of that trip is of sitting next to my brother in the car; I looked at him and he looked at me, and we both raised our hands in a peace sign and declared: “Truce?”
It was a moment of reconciliation. We both realized that we needed to find a way to make peace and to repair our relationship. I thought about that moment as I was reading through our gospel text for this morning. This passage is all about rebuilding broken relationships. And I find the language that Jesus uses here particularly striking. He says that if you’ve got a problem with someone, go talk to them – and it’s not just so there won’t be anger or conflict anymore. He says that if they listen to you, you have regained that one. You get them back! I think this reveals a human truth that, when we are angry or we fight and strongly disagree with someone, we sometimes stop seeing our neighbor – our brother – as people anymore. But when we invest ourselves in the hard work of reconciliation, we get them back.
We see all throughout the scriptures what a high value God places on reconciliation and right relationship. I mean, this is the God who willingly took on human flesh, suffered, died, and rose from the dead just to be reconciled with all of us. God loves us enough to do all of that just to regain us, to get us back – and God commands us to love one another in the same way, even when it’s hard. And so, if talking to someone we have beef with doesn’t work out, we don’t get to just say, “Oh well, I tried,” and leave it at that. No, Jesus says, then you go back to them with another person, and if that still doesn’t work, it then becomes the task of the whole community to try to reconcile with this person. And if even that doesn’t work, then that person should become to you “as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
“Aha!” you think, “So there is a point at which we can give up on people and write them off!” But then you remember – how did Jesus actually treat people like Gentiles and tax collectors in the scriptures? That’s right! He ate with them; he visited their homes and cared for them tenderly and called them his friends.
And so it’s no wonder that, in our second reading, Paul is quoting Jesus almost word for word when he writes about the love that we owe to one another. Jesus famously said:
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”Matthew 22:37-40 (Mark 12:28-31, Luke 10:25-28, John 13:34-35)
Paul sums this up here in Romans 13 by saying:
…the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 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, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.Romans 13:8b-10
The way that Paul – and Jesus – talks about the commandment to love each another also makes it clear that “love one another” isn’t a command that only applies to individual people in their individual relationships; it’s a command that applies to entire communities. As we saw in our gospel reading, reconciliation and right relationship – even when it is between two people – is the work of the entire community. As humans, we exist in a web of interconnected relationships that all intersect and impact each other.
Likewise, Paul writes that love is the fulfilling of the law. Laws can affect our individual relationships with one another, but more than anything, the law is what governs our lives together in community. Laws are how we order our life together as city, as state, as nation, as world. And as Christians, we are called to the work of making sure those laws are created and enacted with the highest degree possible of love for the neighbor – of love that does them no wrong.
This is part of what Martin Luther described as “two kingdoms” theology. The basic idea is that, while we are first and foremost faithful citizens of God’s kingdom, we are also citizens of this world, and as such, we are called to engage in the public life of this world on behalf of the kingdom.
Earlier this summer, the ELCA actually released a social message that deals with exactly this; it’s titled “Government and Civic Engagement in the United States: Discipleship in a Democracy.” The message explains why government is important and it describes how government actually fits into and is part of the work that God is doing in the world. And it lays out a list of fourteen criteria for evaluating our government and its leaders. The list includes things like neighborly service to strangers, functioning for public benefit, adequate regulation, calling attention to abuses of power, respect and dignity, and several more. It sums all these up by saying:
To evaluate how well agencies of government are doing their proper work of providing for the safety and well-being of those within the country’s borders and/or jurisdiction, Lutherans ask one simple but all-encompassing question: is the neighbor being served?
This is an especially important question for us to consider ahead of the election this November. If, as Paul writes, love is the fulfilling of the law, then love of neighbor is what we should expect from the people we elect to uphold the law. It’s the primary standard by which we should evaluate them. And if we can’t honestly, sincerely say that a given person – or policy, or law – embodies love of neighbor, then as Christians, we shouldn’t support them.
Our nation’s political life has become intensely divided and polarized – and these days, hatred of the other seems to drive the national conversation a whole lot more than love of neighbor. And I’m not just talking about what we see on TV and in the news, but even about some of the posts I see on social media, including ones from people I care about.
Loving our neighbor doesn’t mean that we always agree with them. Sometimes we will deeply disagree with them, even fight with them. But it’s one thing to criticize someone’s policies or actions, and a totally different thing to attack them and tear them down as people – and that difference matters. Even when we disagree, we still have to see each other as humans and treat each other as humans. We have to remember that each one of us is still a beloved child of God – whether it’s our neighbor down the street, our neighbor in elected office, or our neighbor halfway around the world. We are called to act in love toward each other because God acts in love toward each and every one of us.
God’s desire is always for reconciliation and relationship. As Christians, we are called to participate in public life as ambassadors of Christ, to practice and promote the love of neighbor to which we have been called. Because the truth is that, at the end of the day, we are stuck with each other, whether we like it or not. Much like siblings who are stuck in a car together on a long road trip, we have to figure out how to live with each other, even when we’re fighting.
And so, to paraphrase Gandhi, we must be the love we wish to see in the world. We are called to be bearers of Christ’s love to the world – to be examples of Christ’s love for the world. We are called to love one another, just as we have first been loved.