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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Midweek Lent 2016 + Love Does No Wrong to a Neighbor

Week 3:  “Who is my neighbor?”

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   Texts: Romans 14:7-19; Luke 10:25-37

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

“We do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves.”

We’re so familiar with these words; we read them at nearly every funeral. Our lives are bound up in Christ our Lord and when we face death, this promise is our lifeline: whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.

But Paul uses these words in a very different way.

Paul is exhorting against people in the community judging one another. There are arguments over feast days, meat-eaters judge vegetarians as weaker, some drink wine while others abstain. Worst of all, people are stumbling in faith over these judgments.

To this Paul says, “We do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves. Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

This isn’t comfort at the death of a loved one. This is a declaration of a central, non-negotiable reality of Christian faith.

We do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves. Faith is not a personal possession.

We forget this. We make faith private and individual. “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” the lawyer asks Jesus. That’s the question we’ve been taught to ask most of our lives. How do I make sure I’m going to heaven? Even for Lutherans, who believe God gives eternal life freely, it’s still usually individual: do I believe I’m saved in Christ?

But faith in Christ Jesus has never been an individual affair. Jesus called individuals, yes, but he always called them into community. Christian faith is only lived in community with others, caring for others as Christ, receiving the care of others as Christ.

The lawyer knew the answer to his question: love God, love neighbor. He asked “who is my neighbor?” hoping he might have kept this commandment already. But Jesus opened up the idea of neighbor far beyond what he imagined. Our relationship with our neighbor is the center of what it means to follow Christ.

Jesus says “Stop asking how to get into heaven and get into that ditch and start a relationship.”

But relationships are hard.

We talk about this here at Mount Olive when our neighbors who are in need come for help. The easy answer is to give them enough to make them go away.

But if we’re really going to be Christ, we’re going to have to have a relationship with them.

That’s the hard thing. Getting to know a person, a neighbor, getting into a relationship with them, means we’re obligated, invested. We can’t shut off our care once we know someone. Having relationships with people as people, instead of giving care to anonymous faces, costs.

That’s partly why the first two in Jesus’ story walked by. It’s not just that they didn’t want to help the man in the ditch. They could see it wouldn’t be a quick fix. It would mean doing what the Samaritan did. It would cost to stabilize him, it would take time to get him somewhere, and they’d have to pay for his care.

They’d have to get to know him. It would start a relationship.

So it’s easier to walk by on the other side. Once you’re in a relationship with your neighbor, you can’t do that anymore. You just get that first chance to avoid connection.

For Christ, relationships are more important than theology, too.

The priest and Levite might have also had theological and ritual reasons for not stopping. If the man was dead, for example, they’d be unclean for service.

Paul says, “who cares?” Don’t let your theology get in the way of Christian love. If you read this whole section, Paul doesn’t say which point of view on feast days or alcohol or vegetarianism is right. He just says “don’t let your theology cause someone else to stumble.” Don’t injure your brother or sister over right and wrong.

Imagine what the history of Christianity would look like if our passion had been loving our neighbor, as Christ asks, loving our brothers and sisters in the faith, rather than fighting over doctrine or claiming individual salvation.

We might look at Jesus’ parable and Paul’s words as not taking theology and right and wrong seriously. But the last 2,000 years would suggest we should have listened to them from the start.

“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.”

That’s the heart of it all. We live and die to the Lord. Our lives in Christ are centered on Christ, who then binds all others to him. In a profound way, we can’t have a relationship with Christ without having one with everyone else whom Christ loves and to whom Christ joins.

We love our neighbor, look out for our sisters and brothers, even those with whom we disagree, because Christ loves them, looks out for them. If we want a relationship with Christ Jesus, everyone else gets to come along. Love of God and love of neighbor not only sum up all God’s commands to us. They are inextricably linked with each other.

Which means there’s still hope for us and for the Church.

We do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves. We are the Lord’s. And the Holy Spirit is still given to us to move our hearts and minds, and change our actions and lives.

Every time we hear Jesus say, “if you did it to the least of these, you did it to me,” we have a chance for the Spirit to change us. Every time Jesus says, “who o you think was a neighbor,” we have a chance to let the Spirit make us a neighbor, give us a relationship. Every time Paul says, “quit fighting about things, because you’re hurting your sister’s faith, your brother’s hope,” we have a chance to be open to the Spirit’s wisdom and change our priorities.

 “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.”

That’s our hope for now and for the life to come. It’s the center of faith in Christ.

It’s also our great challenge, it frightens us, and it’s something we’ve resisted often over 2,000 years.

God give us the grace to learn this, and live it in the Spirit, so all might know God’s love in us.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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