It is said that if you get caught in a riptide, the only way to survive it is not to swim in the opposite direction of the current, desperate to get to where you once were, but to swim diagonally, away from the current’s cycle, into which it is easy to get sucked. This, particularly when one is in a critical situation, is such a tricky and counter intuitive thing to act on. When we recognize that we are in an untenable or even a dangerous situation, it is often our hope to get out of it in the quickest way possible, but it is really the counter intuitive things that will help us to get where we want to go the quickest.
In our reading from Romans today, Paul offers up a pretty counter intuitive, diagonal swimming way of navigating the world. I’m sure it felt that way to the church at Rome in the first century, and it definitely feels that way as we read through it today. First, Paul begins by relaying that we are to owe one another nothing but love, and secondly, Paul encourages Christians to put on the armor of light. These two things might seem simple, and common even, particularly if you have spent your whole life saturated with the language of the New Testament.
But when I think about the riptides that we are collectively in in our society these days, there is almost nothing more counter intuitive than to owe nothing to anyone but to love them. To think that the calling of my faith upon my life is to love in the middle of a global pandemic, a national reckoning with systemic racial injustice, and an upcoming election cycle seems like the easiest thing to do in words only and not in action. To actually wade into the water of our shared conflict and to hold myself accountable to the calling that Saint Paul lays down for us in this passage seems like a near impossible task. Because to swim diagonally doesn’t look loving my family or my friends or even those with whom I agree with, but to love, and to love fiercely, those with who I would rather owe a million dollars than to owe them love. Owe nothing to each other but love, Paul says.
But to live into this calling to love, especially when it is difficult, is the only way out of the riptide of cynicism and hatred in which we find ourselves today. And hear me when I say that love does not look like tacitly approving of one’s actions; it can look like a gentle tenderness and care and it can look like call others to be a better, more whole version of themselves, but it is always done with their imageo dei, their image of God, in the front of your mind. Owe nothing to each other but love.
Paul also encourages these early Christians to put on the armor of light. And, y’all know that I have a hard-won love for Saint Paul, and I’m grateful for his work, even if a lot of it has had to be redeemed for me; one of the things that Paul is known for is taking language and rhetoric that was well known in the day and turning it on its head and using it to pave the way for a counter intuitive understanding of how to navigate the world. Here we have this imagery of the armor of war; it has brought to mind, for centuries, this idea that a Christian is set to go to war; that we are part of a battle of good and evil, we’re on the right side and we need to make sure that we have this armor of light on to protect us so that we can do good work.
Now, when I think of how this metaphor played out in first century Rome verses how it plays out in the 21st century in the United States, I think of the similarities between our lives, even with the vast differences in culture. The imagery of war now, just as then, would have been striking and would immediately conjure images of a powerful defense. Where I think this gets lost is that we don’t often think critically about what Paul is encouraging actually us to do when we put on the armor of light.
What is easy to miss is how Paul is encouraging us to swim diagonally, to get out of the riptide of the works of evil and sin. To put upon the armor of light is put on the fruits of the spirit, to work against what he names in this passage as works of darkness. To foster in our lives love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; to lean against things in the world that pull us into a narrative that demands not that we love others, but that we view them as our enemy. What Paul is advocating for is that in the face of evil we stand firmly in faithfulness. That when we hear of or experience the great injustices of this world, that we clothe ourselves in gentleness and we work with joy to justify these wrongs. To put on the armor of light in the middle of a global pandemic, a national reckoning, and in the coming election cycle, is to, in a word, make ourselves vulnerable. Paul is not encouraging us to force our faith or our beliefs upon anyone and then somehow our Christianity will bowl over anyone who stands in our way, but rather, he is encouraging us to put on the things that will make us more vulnerable, that will make us more suspect to the pains of this world, particularly as we live into the great debt of love that we hold to each person we meet, each annoying, beautiful, flawed person.
Saint Paul has reminded me this week that in this life that we live, all of us have a choice; lots of choices, actually. But every day, every single day, we choose whether or not we will put on the armor of the world that will defend us and protect us or the armor of light, which compels us to owe nothing to each other but to love. Every day we choose whether or not we will live our lives patterned after the one whose name we claim; whether or not we will put on Jesus, as Paul says.
Now is the moment. Now is the moment in which we choose how we will live and interact with those with whom we come into contact. Now is the moment for us to wake up to all the ways in which we have built defenses around our lives that protect us rather than making us vulnerable as we put on Christ; now is the moment for us to take stock of how much we really owe each other. Because, my friends, if we want to get to the other side of this pandemic or November, now is the moment; now is the moment for us to swim diagonally away from the riptide of our surroundings, and toward the things to which God is calling us, to put on the armor of light, and to owe nothing to each other but love. Now is the moment.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church via Facebook Live for Proper 18A on September 6, 2020 on Romans 13: 8-14