They called him “Father Grande.” On hot, sweaty days, he would give kids lifts in his jeep through tall fields of sugarcane. Most of these rides were joyous moments of laughter shared among friends. One, however, wasn’t. Today’s devotional is the story of that one jeep ride that wasn’t and how it became a symbol of something far more radical — a love without stops, a church without hate, a duty beyond debt.
Holy God — our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer — guide us this morning by your Word and your Holy Spirit, so that in your light we might see light, and in your truth, we might find freedom, and in your will, we might truly discover peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for 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. Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” — Charles Wesley (YouTube video for in-home worship: https://youtu.be/JGGcqhKShQ8)
Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling;
All thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus, Thou art all compassion,
Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation;
Enter every trembling heart.
Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit,
Into every troubled breast!
Let us all in Thee inherit;
Let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its Beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.
Come, Almighty to deliver,
Let us all Thy life receive;
Suddenly return and never,
Never more Thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
Pray and praise Thee without ceasing,
Glory in Thy perfect love.
Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.
A week after Father Grande’s jeep was ambushed in that field of sugarcane, the archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, preached his funeral. For someone widely considered a political puppet, Romero’s sermon came as a shock. He spoke from John 15: “No greater love is there than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” When he first learned of Grande’s assassination, Romero immediately rushed to the side of his friend’s body, full as it was of bullet holes, and he wept. One could be forgiven for expecting Romero to lash out, to denounce Grande’s killers as terrorists and to call for their swift destruction. But Romero didn’t. Instead, he spoke about our duty to love. “Who knows,” he wondered from the Cathedral of the Holy Savior, “if the murderers that have now fallen into excommunication are listening to a radio in their hideout, listening, in their conscience to this word. We want to tell you that we love you and that we ask of God repentance for your hearts, because the church is not able to hate.”
Father Grande’s murderers were his fellow Catholics, his fellow Christians, his fellow Salvadorans, and Romero never failed to see them as such. His focus instead was on the cross and the compassionate generosity which once hung there. Jesus had also looked in the eyes of his own murderers and, when he did, he didn’t see them as enemies, but as friends — friends who were in desperate need of love, forgiveness, and peace.
Paul, in his letter to the Romans, smashes together a conversation about how we put on Christ at baptism with one about how we should owe nothing but love to each other. At the beginning of chapter 12, he tells us that we must not be conformed to this world, but we must instead be transformed by the renewal of our minds. How do we do this? We do it by being unselfishly hospitable to the other, by humbly and generously listening to our neighbors and our strangers. Everyone, Paul implies, has needs, desires, struggles, and thoughts, and they at least deserve to be seen as real people in need of a real God and real peace.
But then the apostle does something strange. He begins to talk about our debts and our responsibility to pay them. “Pay to all what is due,” he says. “Give taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” After all, this is how normal, healthy societies work in the world. They are built upon the principle of exchange. They run like the grocery store. Our governing authority protects us, so we owe it taxes, and it is our duty to pay them. This is the normal way of things, and we should follow suit “for conscience sake.”
But, the church isn’t normal, and Paul knows it. The church isn’t simply another society in the world. It isn’t a mini America, and it doesn’t work like one. No wonder Paul tells us that we “owe nothing to anyone” – a sharp contrast to what he just said about governing authorities a few verses earlier. We “owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another.” Our society demands payment for debts owed. But, our churches? Our churches are different. They don’t work like the grocery store. They work on a higher principle, one which Paul calls the principle of unearned, unrequited love.
Such unearned, unrequited love suggests that we have a duty that goes way beyond our debts, and it leads us back to where we started, with Father Romero and loving our enemies. After all, we don’t pay back evil for evil or violence for violence or anger for anger, even if everything else we know tells us that’s what is due. The church, as Romero said, is not able to hate. And so, when we talk about a “duty beyond debt,” we’re not talking about something we must do or something we’re obliged to do or even something we should do. Our love must not become something that we merely reciprocate, as if we only love people because they loved us first.
This even goes for our love of God. We don’t love God because he’s given us salvation. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was not God’s mad scramble to get us to love him. On the contrary, God poured out his love freely and with no expectation that it needed to be paid back. Love, we find out on the cross, is not reciprocated; it’s disseminated. When 1 John 4:19 says that “we love because God first loved us,” John’s not telling us that we should love. He’s explaining how we’re able to love in the first place. In this way, Paul says, such unearned, unrequited love fulfills the law.
I find it fascinating that Paul ends this passage with a reference to baptism: “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Indeed, let us put on, he says a little later, “the Lord Jesus Christ.” The image of putting on Jesus was a favorite way of talking about Christian baptism. We are buried with Christ in his death and raised in the newness of his life. When we are clothed with Christ, we become new creations who bear a vision of a new kind of world – a world of love beyond law and duty beyond debt. Such love spirals out of control for the other. It doesn’t forget that even our enemies are still part of us. They are still sinners in need of a savior, and so we love them, not because we’re better than them, not because we owe it to them, and not even because it’s God’s law that we do so, but simply because — as Oscar Romero reminds us — we are no longer able to hate.
Holy God, we thank you for your unearned, unrequited love. Fill us up with it this week so that we can love your world without condition, proclaim your truth with boldness, and perform your justice with compassion. We ask this in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
– For the story of Father Grande and Oscar Romero, see Scott Wright’s biography, Oscar Romero and the Communion of Saints.