I was riding home from class on the subway one night back when I was in college. It had been a long day and I was lost in a book when a kindly older man in a red baseball cap with the name “Jesus” written across the front sat beside me. I could tell he desperately wanted to say something to me so I looked up and smiled and said hello. We exchanged a few pleasantries before there was a pause in the conversation and he took a deep breath “Let me ask you something” he said, “If you were to die tonight, do you know for absolute certain that you would go to heaven?” I kind of figured it was going there, as the question was familiar to me. I had even asked the same thing of others in the past. I was raised in an evangelical home and knew exactly what he wanted to hear, “Yes” I said, “because I believe that Jesus Christ died for my sins and I have put my trust in him.”
He replied, “I see that you’re a believer!” I suppose it was true; I had gone through my period of doubt and searching and come out on the other side able to answer this man’s question confidently.
It is a good question, a probing one. It offers people the opportunity to become believers. It is an important and necessary question to reconcile for oneself; but becoming a believer isn’t the whole story, it is really only the first step. The fact is that most of us probably are not going to die tonight. There is another more pressing question we need to answer, “If you don’t die tonight, do you know how you are going to live tomorrow?”
Jesus’ message was about more than what happens to us after we die. He announced that the Kingdom of God was at hand, which means that it is all around us, available to us. We can begin to live in the Kingdom right here and right now. For the next couple of months we are going to be exploring what it means to live in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. What does it look like to be a disciple of Jesus and to have a new life in him? How can we live in the Kingdom here and now?
The last section of Paul’s letter to the Romans, where we now find ourselves, outlines how the Gospel transforms believers and the behavior that results from that transformation. In our reading today Paul offers two keys for how to live in the Kingdom.
The first key is this: live with gratitude. Give thanks to God for his abundant grace and prove that you mean it by showing others the same love and grace he has shown you.
Paul has explained how all human beings have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and how the salvation of God has appeared to us in Jesus Christ. In our sin we owed a debt to God’s righteousness that was so great that only he himself could pay it—which he has in Christ—but in doing so he has given us another debt, the debt of love. How can we ever thank God enough for what he has given us in Christ? The first century theologian Origen said, “The debt of love remains with us permanently and never leaves us; this is a debt which we both discharge every day and forever owe.” The Hymn writer Isaac Watts put it this way,
Were the whole realm of nature mine,That were an offering far too small;Love so amazing, so divine,Demands my soul, my life, my all.
This debt is far different from the debt of sin, however, which leads to death. This debt actually leads to life. If people sincerely seek to discharge this debt of love in all that they do, then they will live the life that God created them for. We will live at peace with God and our neighbor. Paul says, “owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law…Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
God’s grace put us in debt to our neighbor, it also gives us a godly sorrow for sin and a desire for repentance.
When Saint Augustine was a young man he lived a very promiscuous lifestyle. One day, after hearing a powerful sermon, he was cut to the heart. He retired to a garden alone and wept bitterly for his sins. There he heard a voice which told him to pick up his bible and read. It was these words he read, “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.”
He writes, “I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.” To be a disciple of Jesus means leaving our old life behind and following him, and so the second key to living in the kingdom now is this, “Lay aside the works of darkness and live honorably as in the day.” Throughout his letters, Paul continually uses this metaphor of light and darkness. It has at least four layers of meaning.
The first layer is the most immediately apparent. Darkness and night is meant to signify evil and day time and light is meant to represent good. Most of us recognize right away that Paul is asking us to stop living sinfully and to pursue righteousness.
The second layer is this: sinful people love the darkness because they believe it conceals the evil things that they do. Elsewhere Paul writes, “For it is shameful even to speak of the things that people do in secret.” (Eph. 5:12) People will act appallingly when they are protected by a cloak of anonymity. If you don’t believe me, read an internet comments board sometime. This is why most crimes are committed at night. Your mother was right, “Nothing good happens after midnight!”
If the works of darkness are associated with secrecy and subterfuge, the opposite—works of the day—are characterized by transparency and honesty. Those who live honorably as in the day time, live their lives with the awareness that the things that they do are known by God and that they will be called to account for them. They know that sin grows and flourishes in the dark like mold, and so they bring their sins into the light by confessing them. Rather than seeking anonymity, they seek openness and accountability.
The third layer is about knowledge versus ignorance. In another place Paul says those who sleep do so at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. To be asleep is to be unconscious and unknowing. Drunkenness likewise is also associated with impaired vision and dull wits. God does not want us to be ignorant of what he requires of us or of what he has done for our salvation. He doesn’t want us to drift through life like zombies but to be sober-minded, alert, ready and waiting for the time when Christ will come in glory to judge the earth.
The fourth layer is about what time it is. As we said earlier, Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom was at hand and available to us in the present. God is overturning the reign of darkness and making everything new. Moreover, through his resurrection the promised new creation, the age to come, has broken into the present. As Christians we have a foretaste of the new creation through the Holy Spirit. In one sense the Kingdom has already arrived, but in another sense we are still waiting for it.
To live in the Kingdom of God now means to live in expectation of its consummation. It means to live as a colony of the kingdom heaven planted right here in the midst of the world which is in many ways still so much the kingdom of darkness.
Knowing what time it is means knowing that the decisive victory has already been accomplished for the Kingdom and that the old world, corrupted by sin, is already passing away. The dawn is breaking on the horizon and the night time is dispersing. Why should we cling any longer to the things that are perishing?
Paul is asking us to cast off the works of darkness, the tattered moth-eaten robe of our sinful nature. You wouldn’t put back on your filthy clothes after taking a shower would you? Wouldn’t you put on new clothes? We have been washed clean of our sins, put on Christ, he says. Our sinful-nature has been crucified with Christ and buried in baptism. Stop dragging around the corpse of your old self and catering to its whims. Leave it in the ground where it belongs and take up your new self which is born from above.