Monday, July 11, 2011

Not By Careful Observation of the Law

This past Sunday I preached on how we need less rules, tradition, and law in our churches, and more flexibility when it comes to embracing people who have different views than the majority on such things.

I got started by noticing that the thing that kept the nine lepers in Luke 17 from showing their gratitude to Jesus was their observance of the law. Jesus may have sent them to the priest, but he wasn't that impressed that they didn't turn back, like the Samaritan leper did. I also noticed that in the next passage, Luke 17:20, Jesus says (my translation) "The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that comes through careful observation of the law." Most (all?) translations usually have only "observation," but given the context and the specialized meaning of the Greek word there, I think my translation is better. It is certainly a lesson that the nine lepers would have benefited from.

Unfortunately churches have a long history of demanding of people that they do things that the church in its wisdom later decided it shouldn't have ever demanded. We've been told not to play cards, dance, go to movies, ride bikes on Sundays, or marry Canadians or Catholics or even Baptists. The church has insisted that women not preach, that communion not be served to divorced people or children, and that we should not welcome (at various stages in our history) Catholics, or those who live together outside of traditional marriage, alchoholics, or people of different races.

The truth is, the more churches demand that people obey the rules, written or not, the more likely that those churches are missing the main point of their existence--putting gratitude to Jesus first so that we can love our neighbors better. Even more ironically, the more churches demand that people obey rules, the more likely they are to suffer loss, or even schism, too. I'm reminded of what Kenneth Burke once said, " . . . nothing can more effectively set people at odds than the demand that they think alike.”

Of course, churches need rules. But healthy church communities also need lots of loving flexibility. Will this flexibility undermine Christian self-discipline? The apostle Paul is aware of this danger in Romans 6, when he asks, "Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace?" His answer is "by no means." So, instead of making the fine print of the law our guide, Paul suggests Christians should instead "obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance." And that pattern is a life of deep gratitude for our redemption, gratitude made evident in love of God and neighbor.

How such freedom in Christ works in particular situations can be a great mystery and even a difficult responsibility. All this freedom from the law--even some of the laws we get from Paul, later in the New Testament--can make some of us feel insecure and uncertain when it comes to rules and traditions. But the Holy Spirit, our counselor and comforter who helps us understand scripture was sent to us by Jesus for just that reason--and to help us make decisions that are truly in line with the pattern of teaching that has now claimed our allegiance. Following that internal heart pattern is what Jesus is referring to, in verse 20 and 21, when he says that kingdom of God comes not by careful observation of the law, but rather, it is already in our midst.

Besides being a mystery, this freedom in Christ is also our great adventure, our way of living large and joyously. This freedom in Christ is not a guarantee that we'll always get it right; but it is freedom rooted in the assurance that when we do mess up, we are forgiven. This freedom in Christ and from the law always lands us at his feet in gratitude rather than in fear for having misunderstood some tradition or Bible passage.

1 comment:

  1. Amen! to all this, John. And it applies to collections of churches (denominations) and their rules equally well.


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