Monday, June 21, 2010

Legally Yours

Psalm 119
Galatians 3:23-29
Matthew 22:34-40

Thinking about some of the issues and points of law we continue to struggle with in our Wednesday night OT Survey class, I have been compelled to ask - and try to answer - this particular question for myself: What is the difference between being "legalistic" and being "faithful"? The short - and likely more practical - answer is that "legalism" is defined by those points we disagree with and don't want to observe whereas "faithfulness" is defined by those things we don't mind doing. Yet by faith and in acts of love we make a conscious choice to be obedient to the Lord as Christ was "obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross" (Philippians 2:8), but we do this even if we do not fully understand the "why" of a particular point. We do, however, have a difficult time making a distinction between faithful discipleship and simply being "legalistic".

In the Gospel accounts Jesus clearly disputes legalism in response to some of the Pharisees' doctrinal challenges and He just as clearly lifts up faithful obedience in response to earnest questions from genuine seekers, yet there is a clear indication that Christians are not well suited to tell the difference, the primary reason (among many, I think) being that much of what Jesus takes exception to is written in the Talmud rather than Torah; the oral traditions of the fathers rather than the written Law. Christians are not typically familiar with Talmud, which is the rabbinical interpretation of Torah. I must also say that St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians does little to clarify the difference and actually seems to compound the confusion - at least for me - by splitting so many "legal" hairs. Then mix in KJV, NKJV, NIV, NRSV, and other Bible translations - and "confusion" will reign supreme!

In Galatians 3:5 Paul asks: "Does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?" In other words, does the Lord offer His blessing because we "believe" Him or because we "obey" Him? And what is the difference? This is where confusion can begin because doing the "works of the law" because we trust the Lawgiver should not be considered "legalism" but is, instead, "faithfulness"; a faithful response to the Word of the Lord. The Lord says "Don't", and so we don't (sometimes). The Lord says "Do", and so we do (sometimes).

And if the Law is in fact the Word of the Eternal God by and through Whom we are given Life, how can one be "imprisoned" (Gal 3:23), to use St. Paul's word, by a willingness to take Him at His word the Holy One whose mighty acts set a nation free from slavery and raised Jesus from death?

To be sure, St. Paul is primarily addressing the problem of the so-called "Judiazers" who continue to insist to the Gentiles that the mark of the Lord's Covenant (namely, circumcision) is a requirement of the Law and that one cannot enter into Covenant with the Holy One until and unless one bears the mark of that Covenant. To be equally sure, there is a fine line between performing some ritual or advancing some practice "just because", or acting in obedience even if we are unsure about the practice or it makes no sense to us. But is this not how we define faith itself - a "belief in things unseen, the substance of things hoped for" (Hebrews 11:1)? And isn't it ironic that St. Paul uses Abraham in this particular context in Galatians as an example of faith when it is the Lord's Covenant with Abraham that is marked by circumcision? Is circumcision not considered a point of Law, a command from the Lord God, even if it is not one of the Ten?

I think we sometimes have a hard time defining what it means to be faithful. Jesus Himself said that proof of our love for Him is in our obedience to Him (John 14:15), yet we dismiss what it means to be obedient - faithfully obedient - because of careless - and sometimes Gnostic (when we separate Jesus from the Father) - interpretations of Scripture in which Jesus rightly points out that the "greatest commandment" is to love the Lord God with all we have and with all we are (Matthew 22:36-37). But before this verse, which is quoted from Deuteronomy, can make sense to disciples, we need to know what "love" means and how "love" is properly portrayed. If "love" is an "action verb", as so cleverly stated in so many sermons and on so many church marquees, then "action" is implied - not mere emotion or warm and fuzzy "feelings"; and if "action", then surely these "actions" would necessarily include "works of the law".

Reading something a few weeks ago, a pastor suggested that the NT "narrowed down" the over 300+ laws in OT to just two: to love the Lord and to love our neighbor. But Jesus teaches His disciples that "on these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets" (Mt 22:40). The language suggests the Law is "summarized", not "replaced" or "modified" or even "narrowed down" because Jesus teaches that to love the Lord God is the "greatest" - and not the only - commandment; and this includes Sabbath law AND circumcision among the many others Christianity seems to have so casually, if carelessly, dismissed in favor of "grace" - as if to imply that obedience to the Lord is no longer necessary because we are "under grace" and not "under law". Hence we separate the Law from the Law-Giver just as we often separate Jesus from the Father.

I am being a little more sarcastic than necessary only to make and clarify certain points, particularly as it pertains to United Methodist theology. To begin with, "grace" can never be dismissed as inconsequential because "grace" is itself a Divine Act; not a human act. We cannot "earn" grace nor can we expect the Lord God to act contrary to His own nature and good will. But neither can we redefine "grace" in a vain effort to accommodate our excuses or spiritual complacency so that we may continue living and acting contrary to Him and His Word which is the Law, which is the Prophets, ALL of which is Christ, all according to Jesus!

"Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the Law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will BY NO MEANS enter the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 5:17-20

Obedience is not "legalistic" nor is obedience a catalyst by which anything in particular is accomplished. Being obedient is not a means to a particular end. Rather, obedience is a voluntary response on the part of humanity; more specifically, the community of faith. Obedience is the personal and corporate expression of the faith community's knowledge of the Lord's grace, mercy, and love.
Obedience comes from a grateful heart filled with the certain knowledge that Love always provokes a response. Grace is that which justifies us before the Holy Father - HIS merit, His love rather than our own (justifying grace). Sanctification, or "sanctifying grace", is how we continue growing in faith and in love through perfect obedience to Him and His legitimate claim over our lives.

Obedience does not make us perfect, but our faith is "perfected in love" when we obey the Lord. He has done for us what no human person could - or even would - accomplish, and obedience is our response- even if we don't fully understand; sort of like what we parents expect and demand from OUR own children, yes?

It is why the Exodus preceded the giving of the Law at Sinai. Israel was first set free; THEN Israel was given the opportunity to respond substantially to that Divine Reality through obedience to the Law. It was their "faith" in the Deliverer, the Law-Giver that provoked the faithful response in gratitude for their deliverance, and it was their lack of faith evidenced in disobedience that provoked the Lord's ANGER! It is by perfect obedience and faithfulness that Caleb and Joshua were the only ones of their generation that would finally see AND ENTER into the Promised Land (Numbers 14). All the others died in the wilderness.

It is this obedience, this unquestioned loyalty, which distinguishes the faith community from the secular culture. It is how non-believers come to know and understand who we are and, ultimately, who our Holy Father is: the Redeeming God, the Just God, the Holy and Merciful God. Just as Israel was called to be "set apart" as a holy and priestly nation, so is the Holy Church called to be "set apart" as a holy and priestly movement; the continuing mission of the Lord Christ.

We must not become so encumbered or overwhelmed with the Law that we lose sight of the Lord and His call and legitimate claim to our lives. But we must also be mindful of the totality of obedience as perfected in Christ Jesus when His humanity asked to be excused from what was to come (the Crucifixion), but His perfect obedience took Him straight to the Cross - His whole life, His total self given in perfect response to the Father's call, the Father's purpose, the Father's will - which was AND IS to redeem all of humanity from the bondage of sin and death.
This is our call. This is, indeed, the Mission of Christ's Holy Church. This is who we are because HE is the source of our life.

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