23 Nov 2014 – Loving the Law (Psalm 119)

Sometimes when we think about our relationship with God we get very interested in what He does for us, and rightly so. We look to God for salvation and for eternal life and it’s very proper for us to give thanks and praise for these things. In Christ God has come and saved us and we’re grateful for that. We have been promised resurrection into life eternal and we thank the Lord for that promise and for that life.

What we shouldn’t do, though, is think that salvation and the life to come are the same thing. They’re not. We aren’t going to be saved at some later time when God raises us to new and perfect life. If God saves us he saves us right here and right now. He saves us in this life and on this day. We have been saved and we’re being saved and we will be saved. God’s salvation comes to us today.

What that means is that we’re rescued from sin and from its consequences and we’re made whole and good as God intends us to be. God’s work of healing and restoration, through Jesus, makes us the people that we’re supposed to be, makes us properly ourselves and able to play our part in the wonder and beauty of creation.

And that’s where all this stuff about the Law and about obedience comes in. Christians have often been dismissive of the Jewish Law, have thought that we can put all that behind us. We can’t. Jesus said he came to fulfill the Law and we have to take that seriously. To understand who Jesus is and what Jesus does for us we need to think about what the Law is that he fulfils, and that’s where the 119th Psalm can help us.

In it the “Torah”, the Law, is made the subject of a series of prayers and songs. We’ve heard two of them today and in them we hear a series of words that all name the same thing. “Word”, “path”, “judgements”, “statutes”, “precepts”, “commands”, “love”, “decrees”. “Torah” can also be translated teaching or instruction and the psalmist makes clear that this “way” or “path” or teaching is the way to true happiness and that we are created to follow it.

Our salvation is precisely that we are enabled to live according to God’s law, because that’s what we were made to do and is the only way for us to find peace and rest, the joy that living in close relationship with God brings. We are saved to live in this world as the creatures God intends, as His image, representing him in what he made, his self-portrait.

.

The variety of words for that way, that teaching, that Torah, shows that it isn’t a simple set of instructions that can easily be learned and followed. Life is complicated and we make a lot of decisions and do a lot of things every day. The perfect human being would know and do God’s will in every single one, from the moment of waking until they go back to sleep. That’s what a full obedience to the law would take, complete alignment to God’s will, doing at every turn exactly what God would most want us to do because we want what He wants.

For us Christians that means following the commands and the words of Jesus, it means walking his way, following him. In Christ we have the example of what a human being whose self is completely attuned to God. In him we see the one who knows and lives the word, the commands and the precepts of God from his innermost heart. He is what we are meant to be, he is God’s pristine image.

He shows us by example and he teaches us by word but he does more than this. In the Holy Spirit he actually dwells in us and we dwell in him. As he says in today’s passage from John’s Gospel: Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” If we allow him to, by obeying him, he will inhabit us in the Spirit, he will live in us so that we can be like him and represent God. That’s the destiny for which God has chosen us as members of his family, that’s our salvation, to be joined to Christ, to be shaped into his likeness.

I will be talking more next week about what that means for us in our lives. What Jesus shows and teaches and how it relates to the love of the Law of the Psalmist. In the meantime I’ll just repeat that being like Jesus is obeying God’s will, as Christ reveals it, and that this is the salvation that Jesus brings and I’ll add that the Lord’s Supper, that we’re about to share, reminds us of our Saviour and also is a chance really to be with him in the Spirit. As we eat and drink we are brought into the presence of Christ and are fed by him as he works in us to make us holy, as he is holy.

As we prepare ourselves for that meal let us pray the prayer he taught, the Lord’s Prayer.

Advertisements

Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2014

Jesus tells us to love our enemies. He also says which should not resist the evil person but rather to allow them to strike us again on our other cheek. If someone asks us for a loan we should give them a gift. If we are sued we are not to contest the matter. Such is Christ’s teaching.

Some few try to live like this, unprotected and vulnerable to all, but they are few indeed. For most of us it seems impossible and we are tempted to interpret the words to mean something easier, more reasonable, something we would find it possible actually to live by. We should resist that temptation. If we look to Jesus’ own example I don’t believe we can conclude anything other than that he meant exactly what he said. He really thought and taught that we should manage without possessions, without family, without protecting ourselves from the evil others would do us. That’s how he lived.

To do so would mean giving up all responsibility as parents or as citizens. To live like Jesus, to do as Jesus commands makes playing a normal social role impossible and his own closest followers accepted that. They had no homes and nothing to call their own. They depended on others and placed their trust solely in God. None of us live like that.

Today, of all days, we are reminded of that. Remembrance Day is a national day that recalls and accepts war, that most un-Christ-like of human activities. In war violence is made systematic and calculated, people become mere instruments, tools to be used to achieve objectives demanded by the attempt to make one’s will prevail by force.

When we come up against a situation where there seems to be no better option then to go to war, and I believe that such situations exist, then we are confronted in a very stark way with the impossibility of living in this world without sin. Most of you will have heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian and church leader.

He was a pacifist, someone who insisted on taking Christ’s teaching on violence seriously. He was also a leader of the Confessing Church, the body of Christians in Germany who refused the Nazi demand that the Church conform to their ideology. Bonhoeffer was drawn into the circle of those trying, during the War, to kill Hitler and make peace with the allies and was executed for his part in the plot.

What seems clear is that even as he accepted the necessity of resorting to violence to bring the horrors of war and genocide to an end he remained convinced that this was sinful. He thought himself compelled to do what he still thought was wrong. He didn’t re-interpret Jesus to give himself a clear conscience. He repented of his intended actions even before he tried to carry them out.

This seems to me the proper attitude for Christians to take. We make the best decisions we can while accepting that they involve us in the sins of a sinful world. We do not try to absolve ourselves of the guilt we take on in doing so but we do have faith that God’s mercy will prevail and that we are not lost to evil even when we are compelled to do what is wrong. We pray that the Holy Spirit will guide and sanctify us and hope that we will be shown the way towards a closer conformity with God’s will.

That is one reason why I’m not sure any Christian can ever, in the end, be a real nationalist. Nations and the states that embody them, are always actually or potentially in conflict. States are, among other things, instruments of war. As human beings in the world as it is we need to belong to them and they need to be ready to use violence. This makes them and us sinful. Among the things we need to repent of and to pray for release from is our nationhood and our patriotism, inescapable as these are. The Christian never ultimately belongs to a nation because we recognise only one Lord, Jesus, only one Sovereign, God his Father.

And yet, and yet, God’s Kingdom has come near but we are still waiting for its full realisation. We live between the times, when the old age is passing away but the birth pangs of the new, of which Paul writes in Romans, continue. In this time between the times we cannot escape the old, we cannot throw off our belonging to the nations. We have to stand ready to answer the nation’s call because we have responsibilities to others we just can’t ignore.

One aspect of Remembrance day is to call to mind those who did answer that call and whose lives were lost in doing so. Those who discharged their responsibilities and who paid the price. In honouring them, as we should, we have also to remember that it was sinful that they had to die and that as members of the nation for which they died we are called to repent. We are called to repent of the sinfulness of the world we live in and that we make, the sinfulness that lay behind the deaths of so many.

Another aspect, alongside and as part of that, is that we have to hold onto the truth that when people become our enemies due to our belonging to a nation and their conflict with it we are not released from our obligation to love them. Even as we fight we have to love those we, or those acting on our behalf, are bound to hurt and to kill. Today that means even loving those who call themselves Islamic State. They want to harm us, they strain every nerve and muscle to injure us and we have no choice but to protect ourselves and those who depend on us. But as we do so Jesus’ words, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, should be sounding in our ears.

Finally, even as we strive to be true both to the realities of our world and the evils that come with it, we have also to remain true to our faith in our risen Lord, who died for us and was returned to life. In this faith our response to the death of those we cherish is a twofold one. On the one hand, we mourn, we weep, we rage against that death which is the great enemy of life and love. We are right to do so, death is an outrage and a scandal, is the end of all that is good and right. On the other hand we know ourselves conquerors and more than conquerors as we participate in Jesus’ resurrection.

Even as we mourn we give thanks for God’s great gift of life and look forward in joyful anticipation to eternal life to come, to the raising of all the dead to participate in Christ’s victory.