SJF • Easter 2B • Tobias S Haller BSGFor as long as there has been a Christian church there has been an underlying tension woven into the fabric of that church; almost like the elastic woven through the cotton of a waistband. And this tension has chafed and irritated, bound and discomforted the church from the very beginning. It is the tension between Law and Grace. I have spoken of it before, and I will have occasion again, my friends, for it seems we Christians never seem to be able quite to set aside those corsets and girdles, however uncomfortable, and put on the new garments God wants us to wear, the ones that fit without binding and chafing; the ones that, in accordance with the Law itself, are not made of two materials woven together, but which, even though one size fits all, fit us to a T as if custom tailored for each of us.
Moses said, The Lord you God will raise up for you from your own people a prophet like me. You must listen to whatever he tells you.
The Scriptures bear witness to this historic conflict between Law and Grace, between slavish bondage under the law and the freedom of the children of God living by grace. In the weeks leading up to Good Friday we reviewed the controversy as it was played out in the ministry of Jesus himself, and in his confrontations with the Pharisees and scribes, the lawyers and the legal authorities both sacred and secular — culminating in his Passion, as he confronted Caiaphas and Pilate, the symbolic but also very real representatives of religious and civil law. The Pharisees and scribes thought the law was what God wanted — after all, he had given it to their ancestors, through Moses. They had missed the point that the law was intended as a temporary measure. The Law was like the training wheels on a child’s first two-wheel bicycle — useful to the end intended, but meant to be set aside when training was done. The law had become, for the Pharisees and scribes, an end in itself, not a means to a greater end — as if people were made for the law rather than the law for the good of the people.
That’s why Jesus had so much trouble with them when he healed on the sabbath, or when his disciples ate without washing, or when Jesus allowed himself to be seen — horror of horrors — with sinners. The self-appointed protectors of the law couldn’t understand that grace had come among them in the flesh, and that the law and the prophets were being fulfilled even in their day— the very thing they had hoped for was happening,and they didn’t see it. They were a bit like folks who spend hours and hours planning for a holiday, collecting and studying the brochures, planning their itinerary, but then missing the boat when it comes time to sail.
That’s not as unlikely as it sounds. Some years ago James and I were going to visit my sister and her husband for a holiday in Germany, where she was stationed with the Judge Advocate General’s department. She and I share in a tendency to want to be careful to dot every “I” and cross every “T” — and that is an important part of her livelihood as a lawyer — in the military, no less. Well, the first portion of our trip was an overnight train-ride from Frankfort to Berlin. The train was to depart a few minutes after midnight, so after supper we packed up our bags and headed to the train station. We boarded the train, ready to be shown to our cabins, but were stopped short when the conductor, after examining the tickets, gave us a disapproving look — and if anybody can give you a disapproving look it’s a German train conductor — and said that the tickets were no good.
“What’s wrong?” we asked. “These are for yesterday’s train; you see the date — well it is now past midnight and the date is now a day later.” We were, in fact, exactly 24 hours late for our train trip. Fortunately, there were some empty cabins, and after a great many more disapproving looks and head-shakings, we were settled in. So in spite of all of our efforts to obey the rules, it was the conductor’s decision to be gracious that allowed us to complete our trip. Grace wins out over law all the time!
But as we know from Holy Week and Easter, this victory of grace over law isn’t easy. Jesus did not receive such a gracious response. The protectors of the law stuck by the law as they understood it, and they handed over and rejected Jesus, the holy and righteous one, and, as Saint Peter reminded them, asked to have a murderer given to them instead.
And as our reading from Acts shows us, the conflict between Law and Grace didn’t stop when the author of life — done to death by the authorities — was raised from the dead by God. No, the struggle continued in the tensions between the first followers of Christ and their Jewish brethren.
And I wish I could say that the struggle found an end when the church finally came into its own. But sadly, the church itself has struggled time and again within itself, as factions and divisionshave torn the body of Christ; as new self-appointed church police have decided it was their task to separate the wheat from the chaff, or the sinners from the righteous — forgetting that all have sinned, all have fallen short, that there is none righteous, not one, and that it is only by grace that any of us dare stand before our Lord.
Now, the church surely knows that. So why is it that it so often reverts to law instead of grace? What is the source of this impulse to resort to Law in response to the reality of human sin? Well, what do you do when people simply won’t behave? Law is a natural response to bad behavior: it constrains the wrongdoer by force, contains the wrongdoer by putting him in jail. The law can even impose the ultimate penalty, death, the one that utterly removes the wrongdoer from the picture.
Law can stop criminals — it can also stop crime. It sets up its boundaries of walls and razor-wire; it establishes limits by age and speed — you must be so many years old to get a driver’s license, and the law will then tell you how fast you can drive.
But what law cannot do is change the human heart: it can constrain or punish wrongdoing, but it cannot erase the impulse to do wrong — it cannot free the human heart from its bondage to sin, its desire to possess and control, it’s seeking of its own advantage at the expense of others. It can get you to the station, but it can’t turn the clock back 24 hours and make your expired tickets good. That requires something else. It requires a conductor with a softened heart, and a willingness to understand and forgive, and what’s more provide a place for you.
The law that Moses brought, the law the Pharisees and scribes knew so well, and tried so hard to follow, was the same law that Christ at his coming fulfilled, in accordance with the promises given through the prophets. As Saint Peter told the crowds, Moses had promised that another would arise like him, by whom the people would receive new instruction; and Moses charged the people to heed him when he came. And in fulfillment of this promise, Christ arose and gave a new law, a new commandment.
This new commandment was not like the old: a commandment that could only prohibit or punish. This new commandment would not be based on bondage to restrictions or fear of punishment. This newlaw would not be like the old law that brought imprisonment and death. No, the new commandment would work by changing the very source of the problem: the sin-wearied human heart that did wrong because it was unable to do right, the fearful, selfish heart that sought only its own advantage at the other’s expense.
For this new commandment was the commandment to love, even as Christ has loved us: with the love that gives itself completely for the sake and salvation of the those who are loved, the love of God given in Christ to undo all selfishness, the love of Christ to imbue all grace.
For who of us does wrong to those we truly love? Yes, we do sometimes act in keeping with the old song, and “always hurt the ones we love” — but surely those hurts and harms represent our failures to love, not our successful loving.
No, love under grace does no harm; love, under grace, doesn’t just shake its head and say, “Your ticket is expired.” Love changes us in the place we most need to be changed, to be transformed, in the heart that if left on its own becomes a receptacle for all that is worst in us, but which, if cleansed by the power of God, emptied by repentance and compunction, sanctified by God’s presence and filled with God’s grace and forgiveness, can become a storehouse and a treasury upon which we can draw for ever.
God has committed this treasury of forgiveness and grace to his people: he has told the church that its mission is not to enforce the old law, but to proclaim the new commandment: to love even as Christ loved us, to forgive those who sin against us even as we have been forgiven. Christ greeted his Apostles — all but one of whom had abandoned him in his hour of need — with the greeting of peace. He strengthened them to receive the Holy Spirit, and committed the treasury of grace and forgiveness into their care when he said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” And he assured us in the prayer we say each day, that it is in forgiving that we are forgiven.
So beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, let us rejoice as the disciples did when they saw the Lord, when he said to them, “Peace be with you.” He accepted their day-old tickets and let them on the train to his kingdom, the “kingdom come” where his will is done, where we are no longer constrained by the bondage of the old law, but may rejoice forever in the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.