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Faithful, Loving, & Hopeful
What does the Mean for Us?
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Quinquagessima - 3/6/11 Deut. 10:12-11:1; Ps. 103; 1 Cor. 13:1-13; Lk. 18:31-43
Love is the theme of our three lessons today, love of God and love of neighbor. Love of God is placed #1 early in Old Testament history. Love of neighbor is there also, but it is not linked specifically to the love of God in the manner that Jesus does in Matthew 22 when He was asked, "What is the great commandment in the law?" Jesus made love of neighbor the second highest commandment in the whole cosmos. That idea was already there, but not stated specifically as second to the first commandment.
We read in Micah 6:8, "He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" That word from Micah has almost the same meaning as the two great love commandments.
In the order of creation, creation come first, and then law. We receive our being first, grow up a little bit, and then we begin to get some of the law: "Johnny, pick up your toys." "Suzie, no cookies until after supper." Etc. God created Adam and Eve before He gave them any laws. The law as we understand it did not come until the event at Mount Sinai -- about which we just now read from Deuteronomy. So, in the order of creation, law comes after creation.
But in the order of redemption, the law comes first before redemption, our new creation. That is because we already exist, but we have broken the law, and thus eroded, and sometimes nearly destroyed, our being. The law must be imposed because there has to be an order established before love can happen. When hospitals are set up in a battle zone, there is an order set up for the healing process. Love, re-creation, healing cannot happen in chaos. The Lawgiver must make Himself known to the fallen creation so that He can bring it back to is proper order and wholeness.
The breaking of the law leads inevitably to the breaking of our being, our personhood. We are fragile creatures, in need of both an ontological stability and a moral stability. So in the Fall, we suffer not only moral disobedience and guilt, we suffer a fracturing and erosion of our personhood, our very being. We are not only a sinful people, we are a broken people. One result of this brokenness is an inability of our wills to effectively obey God. Even when we try hard, we remain ineffective. In other words, we cannot save ourselves. We need someone from outside of the brokenness and rebellion to come in and save us. We cannot heal our brokenness, and we cannot remit our sins. We are trapped in the Fall.
That partly explains why the Old Testament is so focussed on the law. The order was being established within which love could happen. Creatures, who are not self-sufficient like God, are not stable entities when separated from the source of their being, namely God. We become more and more fragile and damaged the further we drift from God.
But God does try to get the point across to His covenant people. He explains over and over, as this morning: "...the Lord set His heart in love upon your fathers and chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as at this day.... For the Lord your God is God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty and the terrible God... God is doing all these mighty works because He loves us, not to impose upon us a legalism.
Our fallen human hearts nevertheless tend to hear the "mighty and terrible" part more than the loving part. And that has been a major issue in trusting God. We miss the love because (1) we do not want to repent, and (2) we are scared to get close to God, as the Hebrews at Mount Sinai. God disciplines us out of His love for us, not a desire to beat up on us, to "get even" with us, or to destroy us. As a father disciplines his child -- out of love. But we tend to see the harsh part, not the loving part. So we keep our distance, and thus inhibit our salvation.
So we drift toward seeing the law as oppressive rather than a gift of and for freedom, that which brings the order in life which makes life and love possible. God gives us a freedom, but it is an ordered freedom, a freedom ordered by His law. If we obey that law, we will flourish, if we do not, we will not.
Jesus made the point in the sermon on the mount, that the Sabbath (a symbol for the whole law) is made for man, not man for the law. God is interested in people, not laws. Laws are there, like railings on a mountain highway. They keep us from falling off the edge. They are an act of love, not of oppression. They point us down the road to the Kingdom, away from over the cliff to destruction.
That is why the wise Hebrews rejoice so fully at the law. That is why God told them that foreigners, pagans, would one day come to them and ask to be taught the law of God. That has already happened in America, and will happen again if we Christians will get our act together as witnesses for God. The laws of God point us to how the world works best, how the world works for our good. \
A reason why Christians have tended to backslide into some form of legalism, just like the Jews, is that we have not understood the "brokenness" part of the Fall. We tended to see it all as a moral issue, rebellion against the law of God. There has been plenty of rebellion, but that rebellion cannot be fully dealt with until we also learn how to be healed of our spiritual brokenness. Until our wills and feelings and emotions are healed and integrated we cannot function in an integrated, holistic way. Our wills do not work right. We act in a fractured and self-contradictory and self-defeating way, just a Paul describes in Romans 7 ("For I do not what I want, but I do the very thing I hate...").
An understanding of our brokenness was discovered and began to be explained (only 100 or so years ago) by mostly secular psychologists. We Christians has spurned psychology as a secular thing because we thought science was a secular thing. We were wrong on both counts. Science is a Godly thing, and psychology is the study of the soul by scientific methods -- a very Godly thing. Our understanding of ourselves, of our human nature, only gets more Godly the more we learn scientifically.
The secularizing of psychology has done great damage to many people. But much of that secularizing is because we Christians fled the field and retreated behind our church walls. We should have stayed in the public debate and become the best psychologists and psychiatrists available, showing how good science always backs up honest Biblical teaching.
So, the law of love itself has been seen and treated by many Christians as another bit of legalism. The law of love has been seen as God making the law even more difficult, a standard which is virtually impossible to attain.
That was, of course, treating the whole matter as salvation by works. Love became another work to earn our way into heaven. But God had no such idea in mind.
All of this will make sense if we see that the Kingdom of God is not a place, however nice. It is a quality of relationship. The two Great Commandments define the Kingdom. We are in the Kingdom when we are actually receiving the love of God -- and loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. When that is actually happening, we are the Kingdom. It is the quality of relationship which makes the place holy, not the niceness of the place which makes relationships holy.
That means that we are to build those relationships with God and each other. Clearly we can do that only to the extent that both parties are doing the building. Each party to the relationship must do his or her building or it will not be complete. You cannot earn your way into such a relationship. You have to freely build it from your side. It happens over time as we get to know each other, as we live in the light with each other. That is why Jesus told His disciples that the Kingdom "is among you". It is not a place to which we aspire. It is a quality of relationship which we build, into which we commit the whole of ourselves, at any cost to ourselves. It can happen in any place at all -- on mountain tops, in concentration camps.
That means that the Kingdom is something into which we can enter with God because He is already building from His side, and that no one can take it away from us. We cannot earn it from God, we cannot obligate God to build with us. It is all grace, His own free decision to love us with all of His heart, mind, soul, and strength -- at any cost to Himself.
Is not that what St. Paul describes in his chapter on love? It does not matter what other gifts of the Spirit one might have. If one does not have love, the other gifts are a tinkling symbol or a sounding brass -- static, noise.
So what is love? What is this extraordinary quality of relationship which seems to have the power to transform other mundane things into circumstances of glory?
Love is a behavior, an attitude, a caring about someone else. It is willing and working for the good of another person. The "good" is that which enhances life, that which increases and enriches life, that which lifts one up to a higher plane of life.
When Jesus made love the second highest law in the cosmos, He made caring about one another mandatory, an obligation. It is not a matter of whether or not I like the idea, it is an absolute obligation I have toward every other person on the face of the earth who might become my neighbor. We are now obligated to care about each other. I cannot rightfully pass by you lying on the side of the road. I cannot rightfully ignore your hurt or pain. I cannot rightfully cause you harm or neglect your need when I have the ability and opportunity to be your servant. Being your servant is now mandatory upon me.
I can do good works outwardly -- "...though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor and though I give my body to be burned...." all that profits me nothing if I do not love the persons whom I am helping.
Many things which are now important will pass away. They will be no longer needed in the fullness of the Kingdom. But three will endure because they are the essence of the Kingdom: faith, love, and hope. Faith is the foundation of our spiritual life which we garner out of our past; love is how we relate to each other in the present; and hope, based on faith and love, is how we face into the future. Heaven will be an ongoing dynamic relationship, not a static freeze-frame for eternity.
In the Gospel, Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, who has diminished Himself down to human size to become our neighbor in this fallen world, the better to love us, gathers His disciples and begins the trek to Jerusalem and His coming death. How could it have come to this?
Jesus tells them again what will happen, but they seem oblivious to what He tells them. As they came near Jericho, an insistent blind man called to Jesus. Jesus tells His disciples to bring the man to Him. The man receives his sight and follows Jesus and the disciples, praising God. Jesus, who is walking toward His own death, stops to heal a blind man. He loves this man whom He has probably never before seen. The blind man is His neighbor for a space of time, and Jesus loves him. He who is God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty and the terrible God, is on His way to die at the hands of those who reject His message of truth and life. How could it have come to this?
Jesus is saying that He will continue to build with them, He will continue to be the real Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, right in front of their eyes, like it or not. He will continue to offer to them the path to Heaven, whether they like it or not. And He will do so at any cost to Himself. There is nothing they can do to shut down the offer of the Kingdom to all who will receive it.
If the Kingdom were the sort of place for which you could purchase a ticket which would command entry, then Jesus could have sent a message telling us how to purchase such a ticket. But Heaven is a relationship. And to offer relationship, you have to engage personally. The only way to make that offer was to stay on course, offering that relationship.
But the Jewish leaders were petrified, they saw only the threat to their own self-made kingdoms of self. They saw only the erosion of their control over the people. They did not see that this Intruder from Heaven would topple their kingdoms no matter what they did, that they were helpless before Him.
What does this mean for us? It means that God is offering to each of us personally the free opportunity and gift of being able to build with Him and each other a relationship of mutual love. We cannot (and do not have to) earn it. God has invested Himself into this relationship fully and wholly, at any cost to Himself. He is asking us to do the same -- at any cost to ourselves -- with Him and each other. That is the reason for our existing at all.
It means that the true Church, the true Body of Christ, is the community of those who are in fact doing that, living in the light with God and with one another. It means the Bible, the sacraments, the liturgy, our places of worship are all helpers to that process, that all those will pass away, leaving the community of those who are always faithful, always loving, and always hopeful. The best of all possible worlds -- totally at one with the great, the mighty and terrible God.
And for St. Luke's, it means that we have a mission, that we need to get out beyond ourselves and our parish problems to engage the world. Perhaps in the form of Chapman University. If we are doing the work to which God has called us, then God will meet the needs of that ministry. If we remain focused on ourselves, we will die, and rightly so.
So, I invite and urge us all to commit ourselves first of all to God, and to beg Him to show us where we are lacking, where we are off center, both individually and as a parish. We need to be sold out to God, and then we need to be sold out to one another. We need to ask God to show us how to live in the light with one another, and how to love one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, how, in a spirit of grace and love, to hold each other accountable for our growth and stature in Christ.
There is no force in all the universe which can defeat a faithful, loving, and hopeful Body of Christ. No such force exists. So let's continue on the road to being part of that faithful, loving, and hopeful community.
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