Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Relief for Entitled Sinners” (Romans 13:8-10)
September 10, 2017
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In the summer of 1976, when I was seven years old, I saw my first non-Disney movie in the theater, a film that won the Oscar for Best Picture, the classic boxing film Rocky.  I was blown away by this movie, and when Rocky II came out a couple years later I remember seeing it in the theater with my friend, John, from across the street—and during the fighting sequences we turned and began punching the thick-cushioned theater seats, laughing and pretending we were Rocky Balboa.

In the summer of 1982 Rocky III was released.  Early in the film Rocky’s brother-in-law, Paulie, played by Burt Young, gets locked up for drunk and disorderly conduct.  Rocky goes to the jail to bail him out.  Paulie was a very bitter person because he was entitled, because he felt like people owed him—and as the years went by his sense of entitlement and resulting bitterness grew deeper.

After Rocky bails him out of jail, Paulie does not thank him.  Instead, as they leave the jail, Paulie rants about how he is a victim and how people owe him, and how easy Rocky has it compared to him.  Rocky patiently listens for a while, but then stops and looks at Paulie: “You talk like everybody owes you a living,” he says.  “Shut your mouth,” Paulie retorts.  “Look,” Rocky continues, “Nobody owes nobody nothing.”  Paulie yells in response, “You’re wrong!  Friends owe!”  Rocky replies, “Friends don’t owe.  They do because they want to do.”  Theological depth from Sylvester Stallone…who knew?

Paulie, of course, is not alone.  There are many people who are resentful and bitter because they feel like people owe them something.  Maybe that includes you.  Maybe you think someone owes you thanks, or owes you recognition, or owes you respect, or owes you the credit that is due you, or owes you an apology, or yes, perhaps owes you money.  It may be your spouse, or ex-spouse, or your kids, or your employer, or your neighbor, or your parents.  And yes, believe it or not, some people even bring their entitlement to church and think the church owes them something or even that God owes them something.

This idea that people owe you something often manifests itself in scorekeeping.  We find ourselves “keeping score” with others—“I have done so many things for them and they never do anything for me.  Why do I always have to be the one to initiate communication, to send the first text?  When we go out to eat why do I always have to pick up the check?  Why do I always have to clean up their messes?  It’s time to make things ‘fair’, time they did their part, time to even the score.”

Such score keeping, while seemingly justifiable, will wreak havoc on the relationships in your life, especially among couples.  In her article for Psychology Today Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne describes this:

Couples who constantly keep score, measuring deviations from expected performance, set themselves up for a host of bad feelings and unpleasant exchanges.  We don’t tend to think of our close relationships as playing fields where parties rack up points and penalties.  However, when this happens, even without conscious intent, the potential is rife for misunderstandings and arguments…. Couples who keep score damage their potential for healthy relationship maintenance because the very act of counting who does and who does not keep up their end of the bargain implies a lack of trust, rigidity, and negativity (March 19, 2016).

Think about your life for a moment.  Who “owes” you something?  With whom are you keeping score?  Are you winning?  This scorekeeping can permeate all of life, as Bruce Springsteen wrote, “Down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line” (from his song “Atlantic City” on his 1982 album Nebraska).  When it comes to scorekeeping, ultimately there are no winners.  Rocky Balboa was exactly right when he told his ranting brother-in-law, Paulie, “Friends don’t owe.  They do because they want to do.”  Along these lines in today’s lesson from his Letter to the Romans the Apostle Paul wrote:

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 (Romans 13:8-10).

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”  This passage from Paul is directly related to what Jesus preached during the greatest sermon in the history of the world, his Sermon on the Mount, in which he said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18).

Moreover, Jesus referenced two specific commandments Paul also mentioned in today’s passage, adultery and murder.  Lest you think you are off the hook, listen to what Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).  And it gets worse, because when it comes to murder, Jesus put it this way:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.”  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire (Matthew 5:21-22).

Jesus does not mitigate God’s law; he magnifies it so that it goes past our actual actions to the motives of our hearts.  If that is where Jesus stops, we are all in very serious trouble.  But Jesus does not stop there.  In his death on the cross, Jesus did on our behalf what we cannot do; he fulfilled the law in our place—because as Paul put it in today’s passage, “Love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Back to the first Rocky film for a moment…the night before his showdown with world heavyweight champ Apollo Creed, Rocky is unable to sleep.  He leaves his small, dingy apartment and walks to the Spectrum and begins pacing the ring in which he will fight the next day.  He is completely overwhelmed.

Rocky returns to his apartment and sits on the edge of his bed where his girlfriend Adrian is sleeping.  “I can’t do it,” he says.  “What?” Adrian asks.  “I can’t beat him.”  “Apollo?”  “Yeah.  I’ve been out there walking around, thinking.  I mean, who am I kidding?  I ain’t even in the guy’s league.”  “What are we gonna do?”

Rocky lies down, “I don’t know.”  Adrian tries to encourage him, “You worked so hard.”  “Yeah, it don’t matter, ‘cause I was nobody before.”  “Don’t say that.”  “Aw, come on, Adrian, it’s true,” Rocky continues, “I was nobody, and that don’t matter either, you know?  And so I was thinking, it really don’t matter if I lose this fight.  It really don’t matter if this guy opens my head either, ‘cause all I want to do is go the distance.  Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, just seeing that bell ring and I’m still standing, I’m going to know for the first time in my life, you see, that I wasn’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”  And of course, when the final bell rings at the end of his fight with Apollo Creed, Rocky is still standing.  Rocky went the distance.

“Friends don’t owe.  They do because they want to do”… at the Last Supper Jesus told his disciples, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends” (John 15:13-14).  And later that night Jesus could not sleep.  He paced the Garden of Gethsemane asking his Heavenly Father to take the cup of suffering away but ultimately surrendered, “Thy will be done.”

When it came to the line dividing winners and losers, on Good Friday Jesus willingly let himself be “caught on the wrong side of that line.”  Jesus endured a horrific beating that literally opened up his sacred head.  Jesus suffered at the hands of every “bum from the neighborhood” who owed him worship and respect and thanks—but instead gave Jesus mocking and spitting and a horrendous death.

And yet, on Jesus’ part there was no entitlement, no scorekeeping, none.  Jesus’ response was a simple prayer, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).  “Love is the fulfilling of the law”—and Jesus’ final words on the cross, “It is finished”, signaled that every letter, every stroke of a letter of the law had been fulfilled completely.  Jesus went the distance to fulfill the law in your place, to show you love that you cannot even imagine.

And as Jesus, the Friend of Sinners, breathed his final breath, a different bell sounded, a bell marking the end of entitlement, the end of scorekeeping.

And how does God call us to respond?  To “owe no one anything, except to love one another”—to mean what we pray when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”—to remember that scripture tells us, “Love keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5, NIV).

One more illustration and I’ll close…several years ago when my daughter Becky was a senior in high school she made a mix CD for me with some of her favorite songs.  One of the songs is called “You Owe Nothing” by Canadian singer-songwriter Chris Velan.  I had never heard of him.  “Dad, you’ll like it,” Becky said, “Trust me.”  And sure enough, as I was listening to it in my truck one evening it brought tears to my eyes because it beautifully describes what a life in response to God’s love, a life devoid of entitlement, a life devoid of scorekeeping looks like:

Time to prepare for the great surrender
It’s been so long that you can’t remember
How it feels to fill your lungs with air
Unclench your fists
You’re the last one standing
The armies that you’ve been commanding
Vanish as if they were never there
And just like that you forgot what you were fighting for
You owe nothing anymore…

The weight hanging ‘round your neck’s been lifted
The winds beating down your door have shifted
The oath you swore you’d keep has been laid to rest…
You owe nothing anymore

Step back from the edge
Stop growing colder
You don’t have to look over your shoulder…
Your debts are paid
There is no one keeping score
You owe nothing anymore
(From his 2011 album Fables for Fighters)

God’s unimaginable love in Jesus Christ is a love that fulfills the law, a love that marks the end of scorekeeping, a love that brings relief for entitled sinners.