The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      10th September 2017
Owe No One
Jeremy Fletcher

Romans 13. 8 - 14

I’d like you to consider for a minute whether you owe anybody anything. Your mind might immediately be leaping towards your mortgage or your credit card, the invoices you’ve not yet paid, the loan you said you’d pay back but haven’t quite got round to. As it happens Chester Cathedral owes me some expenses for some consulting I did for them, but I guess they’ve forgotten.

With a little longer to think, other things might have come to your mind – the kindnesses shown to you by friends and strangers which you have not returned, the sacrificial love of parents and family which you have not properly appreciated, the time and effort of your teachers or work colleagues which you have just taken for granted. In that way we are in debt to people both near and far.

The New Testament has debt as one of its great metaphors. It is not the only one, and too much can be built unhelpfully on one single metaphor at the expense of a breadth of understanding, but debt and payment do illustrate the relationship between humanity and God. We owe God everything, and God owes us nothing – yet in Jesus Christ God gave us everything again, so that our debt to him might be cancelled. In Chapter Eleven Paul has said: ‘from God, and through him and to him are all things’. 

Because of this Paul is clear that we should not be in debt to anyone. Since God became human in Jesus Christ, and because Christ died for all people, then we can be in debt to just about anyone. All we have to do is to think about those who have given to us, whose gift we have not returned, or all those to whom we could have freely given something and have chosen not to. That could be the person you didn’t include in a playground game, or an invitation to a party. 

But it goes deeper than this. Is it not the person who slaved away making your clothes or shoes for subsistence wages on the other side of the world? Those who grew your sugar, or coffee or tea? We are connected to the people of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Caribbean, Africa. I know economics is a complex business, but I can’t getaway from the conviction that the rich are in many ways in debt to the poor. And we are rich. 

I came across this passage from a commentary on this passage written by the Bishop of Birmingham. The words were written in 1900, and the Bishop was Charles Gore. They are a brilliant call to ‘think global, act local’. Please excuse the exclusive language, and remember it was an age where there were both domestic servants and, indeed, railway porters. 

“We Englishmen, members of an imperial and spreading race…have a portentous and lamentably unfulfilled debt to the races of Africa and India, and to the whole world….Is it not bewildering even to attempt to realize our debts? And yet, let a man make a beginning, and all will be well. Let him steadily set himself to behave towards those whom he employs or those who employ him, towards his domestic servants or his masters, towards railway porters and shop assistants…as being men and women with the same right to courteous treatment…as he has himself; let him steadily refuse to ‘exploit’ those immediately concerned with him, or treat them as merely ends to his ends or instruments of his convenience; let him thus realise his debts to his nearest ‘neighbours’, and the whole idea of humanity…will be deepened and made real to him. Serving the few, he will come to serve the many.’ 

Charles Gore, The Epistle to the Romans, 1900

The temptation might be to make this very complicated – to invent all sorts of ways of working out how we can properly repay people and ensure that we are in debt to no one. Paul says that it is not complicated – it’s easy. Love them. Love them with the love of Christ, which gave very thing and expected nothing. Love them with agape – cause them no harm, seek out their good, and you will have fulfilled every law. If your thinking is affected by what you might get out of something, it’s not love. If you make an assessment of a person or an action based on what can be got from it, it is not love, it is trying to borrow from people you are in debt to already. 

This, as Charles Gores says, starts with the mundane and the practical. It’s about how you treat your refuse collector and the person you finally get to speak to after being a queue on the phone for half an hour. It’s about taking an interest in the charities we have support here, and bringing donations to the local foodbanks we’re linked with.We will be hosting guests at the winter shelter in November, and seeking to welcome a refugee family too. And that takes us to the international and global: to buying fairly and justly, to trading ethically, to sharing, especially with those facing devastation and disaster. 

‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another’, says Paul. Love is tested most when there is wrongdoing; when we can show that someone is in debt to us because they have wronged us. In a difficult passage in Matthew – there was of course no ‘church’ when Jesus was supposed to have said these words – the basic point remains clear. Debts of wrongdoing need to be cleared, lovingly, seriously and carefully. If we act lovingly, we will walk and stop in the light, and we will ensure that we are in debt to no one. Set free by God’s grace, we are released to give God back all that we are - and working out that debt to God is all our life, and all our joy.

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