Pay Your Debt

When Paul wrote this letter to the Romans who were living in the capital city of the Empire, probably the thing that was lacking most in Rome was love. The people were under the rule of a military machine and a cruel emperor, and surely they desperately needed to learn how to love and how to display love in the face of the oppression they were experiencing.

He was in Corinth when he wrote this letter to the Romans, and that city also needed to learn about true love. Corinth was full of immoral sexual practices. In the midst of seeking after pleasure, the Corinthians needed to learn that true love looked a lot different then the love they were used to. And you want to know something else? – Love is what’s needed in Los Angeles, in Hollywood, in California, where you live, and everywhere else. The greatest need of people today is to learn the secret of how to love unconditionally, God’s way. That kind of love makes a lasting difference in people’s lives.

Read what Paul says to the Romans in Chapter 13, Verses 8-10:

(8) Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. (9) The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (10) Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Have you ever struggled to obey the Ten Commandments? Have you found it difficult to face up to obeying these demands not to murder (hate) or lie or steal or commit adultery (lust) or covet? Well, Paul says it’s really easy. All you have to do is love. If we’ll act in love toward other people, we won’t hurt them. We can’t. This is the solution to all the problems we struggle with. Just consider what would happen in this world if people could be taught how to love – and then they actually did it?

The first thing I can think of is that most of the impending divorces would be happily resolved and reversed. Couples ready to split up because love has left their marriage could go back together and learn how to work it out. It wouldn’t automatically solve all their problems, but it would make solutions possible. Just think what would happen if all the divorces America were facing today would suddenly cease to be, and homes and families would be secure. Ya think this would change America?

And if we could teach people how to love, we wouldn’t fight in wars. We wouldn’t have to worry about what to do with all the atom bombs and nuclear arsenals. What an amazing thing that would be! Think of how much energy and money is being expended by all the nations on this planet on security. Simply because we can’t trust people to love each other.

If we could love each other, there wouldn’t be any more crime. The streets of LA would be safe to walk down, day or night. If people would learn to love, we’d all feel safe and secure. And obviously, if there weren’t any crime, you wouldn’t need any prisons. All the money we spend on prisons and reformatories could be spent on something more useful. And you wouldn’t need as many courts of law, or police. We need all these things because we’re so incapable with this ability to love.

And think what would happen to our tax burden if we could get rid of all wars and crimes and police and courts! It would be reduced to practically nothing! All the wealth that’s poured into taxes today could be used to spread beauty and harmony and health care and food and clean water and sufficiency of living to everybody on earth. Our biggest problem is our lack of love, our inability to love one another. Everything we know in life revolves around this problem.

Paul is telling us that the ability to love – that and nothing less than that – is the radical force that Jesus Christ has turned loose in this world by his resurrection. Therefore it has the power to radically change the world.

He implies that this love movement must start with us. If we’re Christians, if we know Jesus Christ, we have the power to love. There’s no doubt about that. If you know him, then you have the power to love. You don’t have to ask for it; you’ve got it. If you have Christ, you have the ability to act in love, even though you’re tempted not to. That’s the whole issue.

Paul says that when you come up against people, when you rub shoulders with them, remember that your #1 obligation is to love them. Act in love. Show courtesy, kindness, patience, understanding, longsuffering – whatever it takes, whatever the situation demands, we can show love. It’s a debt we owe every person: “Owe no man anything but to love one another.” Make it your debt; make it your obligation … to love everyone.

I wonder what kind of radical things would start happening around here if we all started living this way. Every day, every person we meet, we would say to ourselves first, “I need to love this person. No matter what, I owe that to her or to him.”

Have you ever owed money to somebody? Isn’t it crazy that whenever we meet someone we owe money to, that that’s the first thing that comes to our minds? And I always wonder if that’s what they’re thinking about too. This is what Paul says we’re to do about love. We must remember that we have an obligation to love every person.

This obligation “IS” to everyone. We should be asking, “Who is our neighbor?” We think immediately of the people who live next door to us. They’re our neighbors. Why? Because we’re in contact with them. But when I hear the word neighbor, I just think of all the people who are around me. The people at school sitting next to us, the people we meet on the bus, the people we work with, the people in line at the grocery store. Wherever we are, the people we make contact with are living right beside us and they’re our neighbors for that moment. Since Jesus has given us the ability to love by coming into our lives, we’re to love every neighbor as ourselves. The people in charge of us, and even the people we’re in charge of – it doesn’t make any difference, they’re all our neighbors.

I meet with a group of men in the South Bay every month (that’s 30 miles from where I live). Ron is one of those men. We’ve been encouraging each other to find guys and love them with Christ’s love, whether they’re Christians or not. Well, a few months ago Ron found Steve, and they’ve been meeting together every week since. Steve made a commitment to Jesus Christ at a men’s breakfast, and started to become concerned about his cousin, Jacob, who lives near me. Steve asked Ron if he knew someone who would be willing to talk to Jacob, and Ron said he would find out and he called me. He asked me if it was OK for Steve to give Jacob my phone number, and I said, of course. So Ron gave Steve my phone number, and then Steve called me to make sure it was still OK. He then gave Jacob my phone number. Jacob called me and we talked over the phone a few times, and I then invited Jacob to another men’s breakfast. Jacob came and met the guys at Coco’s Restaurant in Pasadena at 6:00 am that next Wednesday morning. After breakfast, Jacob and I sat together for a while, and it was during that time that we prayed together and he discovered a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

This all happened because Ron loved Steve … Steve loved Jacob … God helped Jacob to have the courage to call me, a stranger he had never met … then God helped me to love Jacob when he called.

But, here’s the rest of the story … After we talked about the assurance of his salvation, which was challenging for Jacob, I asked him to read a few verses every day that would help him with his relationship with Jesus. I asked him to call me if he had any questions. That next Saturday morning, Jacob called me and I thought it was because he had some questions. But instead, Jacob had something to tell me. First he told me that he owns and manages a liquor store – that’s right – and I just listened – then he told me that that very morning one of his former customers, Clarke, a recovering alcoholic, came into his store and reminded him that he was still not drinking but he was really struggling. He thanked Jacob for helping him stay sober by not selling him any booze. Well, Jacob then began to tell Clarke what had happened to him at the men’s breakfast. And that maybe Jesus could help him to stay sober. Then Clarke got really excited about these men meeting together, and asked Jacob if he could come with him the following Wednesday. Jacob said, I don’t know, but let me call Paul and ask (I loved this). Jacob was calling me to ask permission if it was OK to bring Clarke with him to the men’s breakfast. You know what my answer was…

This is what happens when we love people. One life influences another life, and like dominoes starting to topple, people come to want what we have.

Paul says, when you love like this, you go above and beyond the Law. The Law says to all of us, “Don’t harm your neighbor.” You can do whatever you like with your own property, but that’s where it stops. You can’t do what you like with your neighbor’s property. If you do, you answer to the law.

You see love goes a step beyond the law. It doesn’t stop with the negative, the part that says, “Don’t injure your neighbor”; it goes on and says, “Do good to your neighbor.” Love him, reach out to him, listen to him, care for her, be kind to her, love everybody. It’s simply impossible to love our neighbor and hurt them at the same time. It’s impossible to reach out to our neighbors and, at the same time, cause them injury.

That’s why, as Paul says here, love will not sleep with your neighbor’s wife or husband; love won’t commit adultery. Love will not hate your neighbor, or poison his dog, or throw garbage into his back yard, or do anything harmful to him. Love won’t steal from your neighbor. Love won’t covet what your neighbor has; it won’t drool over his BMW, or stew about his new iPad. Love doesn’t want what your neighbor has, but instead rejoices with him over what he has. That’s love.

We don’t have to worry about keeping the Ten Commandments – when we love people. That’s all we have to worry about – acting in love, paying the debt we owe every man, woman, and child – every person we meet. If we pay people the debt of love we owe them, we’ll never injure them.

Now we could stop right there and go home. It couldn’t be any clearer. But Paul goes on and says in Romans 13, verses 11-14:

(11) And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. (12) The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. (13) Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy (you see, these are all the sins of Corinth where Paul was writing these words to the Romans from). (14) Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

WOW! The thing that strikes me about this paragraph is these opening words in Verse 11. Love your neighbor, Paul says, pay the debt you owe him by “understanding the day in which we live.” There’s something about today. We live today. And if we understand the day in which we live, we’ll be aware of what’s going on around us, and all the stuff going on around us will compel us, motivate us, drive us to love our neighbors. If we understand the times we live in, we’ll be able to love people.

Paul says, it’s time to get going: “The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.” It’s time to wake up, time to get going, time to look around and see all the opportunities to love that exist around us.

I’m amazed by how many times in my own life I pass over the opportunity to love. I’m always looking for opportunities with other people way out there, you know, those further away. And yet I’m surrounded in my own life with close-up opportunities to show love. I’m always amazed by how easily I want to help somebody way over in Africa, and yet ignore people right around me.

For just a few moments, think about the people in your life that are right around you. Is there one person that comes to mind, whether you know their name or not? Paul is telling us to wake up and to look around, because every day holds opportunities for us to pay this debt of love to somebody who needs it. If we wake up we can begin to see them.

Now, we don’t have a lot of time to do this. The time is short. Paul puts it this way, “our salvation is nearer than when we first believed – the night is nearly over – the day is almost here.” I believe that has to do with the hope that is ours as Christians – that Jesus Christ is going to return any day – but I also believe that this refers to the fact that none of us know if we’ll even be alive in our bodies past today. On one occasion Jesus said in John 9:4, “I must work the works of my Father while it is day. The night is coming, when no man can work.” Jesus was aware of the urgency of the time, and the fact that he had to labor because the day was almost gone. Then he said in the next verse, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

When Jesus was first present on earth, it was daytime. But when he left us physically, when he was buried in the grave, the night came. And that night has been running on now for almost 2000 years. Paul wrote in Philippians 2:15, “We Christians are to be like lights shining in the darkness of the night.” The night is all around us, but the day is about to come. The night is nearly over; the day is at hand.

You may say, “Well, wait a minute. Paul wrote this letter 2000 years ago, and he said it was nearly over then. How can we say that it’s nearly over now? How could it be nearly over then, when 2000 years have gone by?” When you look at it from that point of view, it’s difficult to understand. But there’s a sense here in which these words are always true of every one of us. Regardless of whether or not this is the generation in which Jesus Christ returns to fulfill his promise, the truth is that the night is nearly over for every one of us. You could be hit by a car this afternoon, and your night would be over because you would instantly be with Jesus, the light of the world.

Our lives are fragile. Like the pastor I know back in Indiana, who is a couple years younger then me, found out just recently. A drunk driver slammed into John’s car, and in a moment he was with the Lord. None of us know when the night is nearly over for us, and we’re with the Lord a second later. If we’re ever going to love, it has to be now. We can’t wait any longer.

Many of you are young people. “How much time have you got left?” None of us knows. Maybe you’ve heard the words of George Bernard Shaw, “Youth is such a wonderful thing, it’s a shame to waste it on the young.” Well let me tell you something, in a way we’re all young because we only have today. None of us know how much time we have left on this earth. Who knows? We live on the edge of eternity.

A car crash – a brain aneurism – a drive-by shooting when we’re not even the target, we’re just passing by. The night may be nearly over for any one of us, no matter whether we’re old or young. So the argument Paul makes here is powerful. He’s saying, “If you’re going to love, now is the time to do it.” Now! We can’t wait for tomorrow. You can’t plan on doing this after you graduate from school, or when you retire. Start now. We must all begin to love one another today.

And in order for us to start loving people around us, we need to understand that it’s time to give up some things. Look at the things we should be giving up, Paul writes: “So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.” If we’re going to live to love, we’re going to have to let go of some things. There could be things in our lives that are incompatible with love, and you can’t do those things and love at the same time.

Paul says, “Don’t live for endless pleasures. Give up orgies and drunkenness.” That means don’t spend your life doing things over and over that you’ve planned for your own pleasure. Hey, it could mean more then just these sins of the flesh Paul describes here, it could be things like spending your life on good times, late night clubbing, endless parties, concerts, or sports events. or even watching television. We can’t love people and do stuff that closes us off from people. We’re wasting our lives on stuff that doesn’t amount to any benefit for any one of our neighbors. If we spend our moments in endless self-indulgence, we’ll never be able to live in love.

Obviously, Paul is saying here, “Don’t live for sex.” Sex is a powerful force that’s highly exploited today. We’re constantly surrounded by temptations to give ourselves to. A new affair, a new romance, a new sexual thing with a new person will satisfy us. We live on the border of Hollywood – isn’t that what the lifestyles of the rich and famous keep broadcasting to us? These people keep telling us that there’s no harm in it.

But Paul says there is. He says if you live for these things, you can’t fulfill what God wants you to fulfill. You’ll miss the excitement and the radical glory of loving people. You can’t love people and live for pleasure. Paul covers the whole range of immorality here. You can’t indulge in these things and love, because you’ll hurt people. You’ll hurt yourself. You’ll destroy others and destroy yourself. It happens all the time.

I like what C. S. Lewis says: We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered us. Like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Then Paul says something about our inner motives: “Don’t live for strife, causing dissension and jealousy.” It’s amazing to me how some people get their kicks out of being a pain in the rear end. They can’t seem to enjoy themselves unless they get people fighting, upset, and angry. And I’ve known some Christians who do this. What’s your effect upon people? Do you bring harmony into their lives? Do you make them happier because you’ve come along in their day? Or do you bring a bunch of junk along with you when you arrive in their lives? What’s my life doing? What’s your life doing? It should be obvious to all of us that if we’re with Jesus, we bring people together; if we’re against Jesus, we cause people to scatter.

So Paul comes up with the solution for all of this – That above everything, we’re to “clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Every single one of us put on our clothes this morning with the intention that they would be on our bodies all day. We wanted our clothes to go wherever we decided to go today. We all wanted our clothes to cover us and make us presentable to each other. That’s the purpose of clothes.

Well in the same way, the apostle Paul says: Put on the Lord Jesus Christ every day. Make plans for Jesus to go with you everywhere you go. Invite him to act through every moment of your day. Call on his resources. Live your life in Christ. That’s the way to love.

When we put on the Lord Jesus Christ, we’re putting on a power to operate and change events and effect people’s lives that we don’t have otherwise. When we put on Jesus, we’re putting on the capacity to love. And isn’t that the best description of Jesus? He just loved people – he loved lepers – he loved a lost woman – he loved a blind man. And their lives were all radically changed as a result of his love.

He treated the lowly the same as he did the higher-ups. He loved people. When we put on Jesus, that’s what we’re putting on – the power to love. Christ came to deliver us, to set us free. And when we put on Christ, we have an amazing power to help others find freedom from the junk this world dumps on them.

So put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Count on his power to supply love when you begin to obey the command to love. When you start to pay the obligation to every neighbor in your life, he will supply the power to love that neighbor.

These words have been made famous by their connection with the conversion of a man by the name of Augustine, who lived in the 4th century. By today’s standards, Augustine was a wild guy. He lived a pleasure-seeking lifestyle, running around with the wrong people, and doing everything they were doing. Nothing stopped him – he went into anything and everything. And, as people still do today, he came to hate himself for it.

One day he was with his friend in a garden, and he walked around, bemoaning his inability to change: “How can I free myself from these terrible urges within me that drive me to the things that hurt me!” Suddenly he heard what he thought was the voice of a child – and the voice said, “Take and read, take and read.” He didn’t know what these words meant, but they stuck in his mind. Later he sat down at a table and found a copy of Paul’s letter to the Romans on the table. He began to read, and these were the words he first read:

“Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies, and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ”

Augustine said that at that moment he opened his life to Jesus. He had known about him, but had never surrendered to him. But that moment he did, and he felt the healing touch from Christ cleansing his life. He was never the same man again. He went on to become one of the greatest Christians of all time – Saint Augustine.

That’s what Jesus Christ is capable of doing. He gives us all the power to love. If we choose to exercise his power in the moment that needs it, we can release in this world a radical influence that has the power to change everything around us. It will change our homes, our lives, our communities, our nation, the world – because a risen Lord is available to us, to live through us.

That’s the way to love. That’s the way to live.

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