The Cross as Our Ringtone: Reflections on Romans 13:8-14

Lectionary Reflections
Romans 13:8-14
September 7, 2014

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For 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: "You shall 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 first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. (Romans 13:8-14)

Wake-up Options

My smartphone offers at least twenty-five alarm options. It anticipates a variety of morning scenarios. There are low-key ring tones for the mornings you have no particular place to go, no definitive "to do" list. They have names like morning flower. Over the horizon. Rainbow. Rainy day. Rays of the sun. A rustling in the trees. Sea breeze. Serene Morning. Spring of hope. Break of day. Blowing dandelion seeds.

For those other kind of mornings, the ones that hold anxiety-producing appointments, say in the operating room for surgery, at the frontline for battle, in court for a deposition, there are rousing, strident ringtones like Basic Bell, Beep, and Beep-Beep.

Then there are mornings when you have no particular plans and can sleep late. The appropriate ringtone (or lack thereof) is Snooze.

Snooze is the one function on my smartphone alarm Paul wouldn't approve of.

A Call to Wake from Sleep

Paul is adamant that the Roman church wake from sleep. And we, as readers within the horizon of the text, are exhorted to wake from sleep along with them. Paul defines sleep as the works of darkness, habits, and relationships fueled by selfishness, self-indulgence, and the absence of discipline (vv. 12-13).

A Call with Urgency

A laid back ringtone like Rainy Day or Blowing Dandelion Seeds is inappropriate for the urgency of this wake-up call. For Paul, the urgency comes from the short period between Christ's first coming and his second. He will return to execute God's judgment and establish God's kingdom and rule. This second coming will mean final deliverance (5:9) and is nearer than when the readers were converted. Paul seems to expect this event to occur soon.

We need this call to urgency as much or more than the Roman church. When centuries have passed and this advent has still not occurred, it is easy to lose our urgency. But there is still the urgent truth that our lives are short and we have a limited time to serve Christ in this world. (Best, 152) Paul understands this as "putting on the armor of light, living honorably as in the day" (13:13). Whatever challenges or good fortune our day may hold upon waking up, this is the attitude in which we are to live it.

A Call That Pervades the Scriptures

Paul's exhortation to wake up comes in the context of a broader canonical theme of watchfulness. The prophet Isaiah exhorts his listeners to "Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you" (Is. 60:1).

One who claims to be a disciple of Jesus Christ must be Awake and Watchful.

Matthew is especially fond of this theme and tailors several of Jesus' parables to underscore it: among them the Wedding Feast, the Ten Bridesmaids, the Talents, and the Faithful and Unfaithful Servants.

Says the author of 1 Thessalonians, "For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober" (1 Thess. 5:5-6).

A Posture of Preparedness for Jesus' Return

Just before this passage Paul has been talking about the various claims on human life, such as taxes and obedience to authorities. But there is one claim that trumps all others, and that is the claim of love. We are to wake up to this claim. The negative and the positive commandments Paul mentions all have to do with relationships among people (vv. 9 and 10). Allowing love to govern all our relationships fulfills the commandment, because love precludes adultery, murder, theft, and covetousness. It is urgent that community members not linger in sin but take very seriously the call to show actual righteousness and goodness in their lives. (Best, 152)

The Cross and Resurrection as Wakeup Call

The cross and resurrection of Jesus are the light that illuminates each day and guides our actions. "God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us"