Books or Coffee? Law or Grace?

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, August 12, 2012, by Christopher L. Webber.

There was a time when bookstores sold books. I still remember it.  In fact, here in the remote northwest corner, they still do.  But go into any major city and you will find that the bookstores compete not on the quality and abundance of their books but on the quality of their coffee and the ambience of their coffee areas.  So people go to Barnes and Noble or the competition not because they have better books but because they have better coffee.

Now that kind of thing happens to churches also. People choose a church to belong to – sometimes – not because God is present in word and sacrament but because they have friendlier people or a nicer minister or – I have seen web sites that say so – because they have a “kid friendly atmosphere” or “global music.”

I wonder how often people choose a church because of its theology?  I wonder how many think about whether the church they go to has a gospel of grace or a gospel of law?  But one of the most enduring and divisive misunderstandings in the Christian church  is the idea that the church is about laws rather than grace.  I don’t know what answer you would get if you should ask the average Christian for an opinion on whether the church is about laws or grace but at a practical level, I really doubt grace would win.

It starts with church school. Do parents bring children to church school to learn faith or behavior? to believe in God or learn to behave? And do they ever, I wonder, check the church school curriculum to see what it is, in fact, that the children are being taught?  There is a difference.

I remember a woman I knew years ago who was hired to teach the kindergarten class in a parish day school of another denomination and who told me that the teacher’s manual on page one said this (I’ve never forgotten it):  “Every child is born in sin and must be made aware of this from the earliest time.” That’s one approach. And if you want behavior emphasized, and law emphasized, that’s probably where you’d find it.

The epistles of Paul are not like that. They always begin with a proclamation of grace and love. Even if he’s about to lay them out in lavender, he speaks first of grace.  Because that IS the gospel: it’s good news about love and it’s about freedom.  The Pauline epistles usually get around to behavior toward the end – sometimes sooner – but always in a context of love and grace  and forgiveness.

What Paul has to say is radical and it’s risky. He says God has “abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances.” We read that three weeks ago.  But suppose you woke up to find that Congress had abolished the law and was counting on all of us hereafter just to behave nicely toward one another. Would you dare to go outdoors?  I can just imagine how a lot of Jewish people felt when they heard what Paul was saying.  What security would there be without the law? How would you know who was Jewish and who wasn’t?  who belonged to God and who didn’t?  Abolish the law with its commandments? How would you know how to behave?  What could you now get away with?

The Biblical answer is that love is sufficient: love, faith, grace. But even Christians have been very reluctant to give it a try. I mean, I can obviously get along without the law myself, but could I really trust my neighbor that far, or the people across town, or in the next town, or the next country? It’s a great idea, but will it work?  Or to put it another way, can we really trust God?

Back in Jesus’ time they had a law and they could answer every question about God’s will: how far you can walk on a sabbath day; how much you need to do for your parents to meet the legal requirement; when you need to wash your hands. The Pharisees had it all figured out and if you wanted a well-behaved child that the neighbors would approve of you would certainly send him to the Pharisees for a schooling.

There were Christians right from the beginning who doubted it would really work.  Peter and Paul had a major fight on the subject. But they decided to give it a try. And they did.  But it didn’t last. It’s just easier to have rules. Whether it’s fish on Friday or playing cards on the sabbath or drinking alcoholic beverages, Christians of every sort have fallen back again and again into the legal mind-set.  People tell me that the churches that are growing are the ones with answers and rules.  Of course.  Make life simple.  Give people a sense of security; easy answers; clear guidelines. But is it Christianity or is it something else?

I think the current controversy in the Episcopal Church is fundamentally about this same issue.  The one side sees the Bible as a rule book and somehow thinks that human sexual behavior can be governed by laws even if the laws were made in a time that had never heard of the actual situation we face today, even if the people who make other people crazy are faithful, deeply committed Christians.  There will always be some who find law easier and especially when dealing with something new and something out of their direct experience and something that challenges them to think again about questions they thought had been settled long ago. It’s frightening; it’s risky; laws are always safer. I would guess that every human society has tried the same thing. Especially when you’re facing something as powerful and emotionally overwhelming as sexual behavior, you’d better have rigid rules or who knows what might happen?

Of course we do need rules and guidelines and every society needs laws, but that’s not what Christianity is about.  Governments are forever trying to get the church to bless its laws and teach obedience, but then someone goes and reads the Bible – sometimes, you know, even the church has forbidden people to do that – but someone does it anyway and finds all this stuff about abolishing the law and being set free in Christ and then there’s trouble.  Because if you are free to question the laws there are bound to be differences of opinion and arguments and disagreements and controversy – and who wants that?  No one.  The Pauline letters are forever having to deal with such issues.  What about marriage?  What about this food and that?  What about wearing hats in church and long hair and meat offered to idols and praying on certain days?
Sometimes Paul actually does suggest some answers, but mostly so as to keep the peace and not to offend the neighbors. Finally, he persists in attempting to show people a new way, a way based on love, a way that trusts God’s grace.

Look carefully at this morning’s reading from Ephesians. There’s lots of stuff about behavior, but notice how it’s grounded always not in law but in grace, not in conforming to rules but conforming to Christ.  How does it begin? “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors.” A good rule; lying is wrong. But why?  because of the ninth commandment?  No: because “we are members of one another.” We have a unity in Christ that makes falsehood impossible.  Would you lie to Jesus? That’s who your neighbor is.

“Thieves must give up stealing” and work honestly, we read. Why?  Because of the 8th Commandment?  No, but “so as to have something to share with the needy.”

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another” the epistle tells us. Why? Because of the sixth commandment? No, the Pauline letters never appeal to the law as a basis for action, but we need to be forgiving because we’ve been forgiven.

We are called to “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us.”And yes, indeed, that’s risky. Law-makers don’t like their security challenged.  Jesus was crucified; Paul was beheaded. If you live by the law, you need to get rid of the trouble-makers.  Let’s get back to the law that gives us the answers we want.  But the gospel is still here and still causing trouble.  Love makes radical demands on us; it makes demands far more challenging than law.  It asks us to think, to see things in the new light of Christ, to be changed from the inside out rather than from the outside in.  And it leaves us without easy answers to the war in Afghanistan or the environment or the economy or sexual relationships or any of the issues that face us; and some Christians will see these things one way and some another because grace is not a rule book and human beings – even Christians – are slow learners and reluctant still to test our freedom.

But again and again in the readings in recent weeks we have heard what the priorities are: to know ourselves to be a new people – in Christ – living in love, depending on the Spirit, and offering others the same forbearance we want them to offer us.  Patience, charity, humility, forgiveness, meekness, gentleness; these words and others like them have come up again and again in these readings in recent weeks. God loves us so much that we are given a vision of people who find their unity and their strength for daily living in the grace that produces these qualities in human lives and that looks for them here – right here – looks to see them in you and me.

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