02.19.2017 Preaching Text: “[You] belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” (1 Corinthians 3:22)
If you could summarize the lectionary readings over the last few weeks, you might say they’re mostly about fellowship and the law. Or community and covenant.
How we as Christ’s disciples live together, in other words, depends in large part on our covenant with God and by extension, one another, a covenant being, as I often call it, love’s “rules of engagement.”
Admittedly it can be very confusing for Christians to understand the biblical meaning of covenant, or law, as opposed to that of grace. After all, we’re familiar with Paul’s famous dictum that we are saved by grace and not by works.
But does this mean that a life born of grace is free from obligation? In Romans 6:1 Paul asks, anticipating objections raised by others: “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” Paul’s answer? “By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?”
Or consider verse 15 of the same chapter. Paul again asks, “What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” He repeats his previous answer: “By no means!”
So we first should ask: what exactly is a covenant? It’s like a contract but different. A contract, you see, is a quid pro quo which allows two equal parties to enter into an amicable agreement whereby one party offers something in exchange for commensurate goods or services from the other.
Biblical covenants, in contradistinction, are based on an ancient contractual agreement made between two unequal partners. A typical arrangement would involve a powerful king who agrees to enter into battle to defeat a lesser king’s enemies. This lesser power, in turn, would be required to fulfill certain expectations as determined by the greater power.
The allusion to biblical covenants made with God ought to be apparent. God, the greater power, agrees to enter into an agreement with a lesser power, in this case the human community, to defeat its enemies and offer blessings. In response, we, the lesser power, are obligated to fulfill God’s expectations for us. The difference between this and a secular covenant, however, is that God’s demands are for our benefit, not for God’s.
But to modern ears this whole arrangement sounds repressive and life-negating. After all, rules and laws restrict our freedom – and freedom is what we’re all about.
This curious idea, in earnest, came about in the 19th century when society and it obligations came to be seen as repressive, restricting and suppressing our otherwise noble souls.
À la Ralph Waldo Emerson, we’ve been conditioned to think that sin resides in anything that restricts or prevents our natural wonderfulness from blossoming forth. Of course, the traditional biblical understanding of sin is that it resides within the human heart, so that the sins of society are merely the sins of the human heart writ large (hat tip to Plato).
So it was that Israel believed the restrictions of the law placed upon them by Jahweh were a gift and a great blessing. The purpose of the law was to help them navigate successfully through life’s many potential moral pitfalls.
The law was like a field map identifying life’s many landmines. In heeding the contours of the map’s terrain, their steps might prove safe and surefooted.
Implicit was the idea that God’s creation is infused with moral content, content that had been obscured by sin. Recovering an awareness of this hidden content was, for them, an unalloyed and precious gift.
Thus Israel accepted gratefully the covenant’s obligations, believing that their observance would usher forth life. Jahweh, the greater power, had brought them out of slavery and led them to the Promised Land. But more than that, Jahweh had bestowed upon them mercy and salvation.
In return, their task was to live by the dictates of Jahweh’s sacred law, the result of which was not oppression, but a true flowering of God’s purposes for their lives.
By the time of Paul, however, Mosaic Law had hardened from its original, broad principles – to love the Lord with all of one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength, and one’s neighbor as oneself – into a complex and overly burdensome set of rules that’s purposes had become obscure.
Notably, Paul seeks not to reject the law but to restore it to its original and proper role. The law was not to be a set of arbitrary rules that we slavishly perform in order to get points, or earn salvation. Rather, Christ’s law was to serve as “rules of engagement” amid our Christian relationships with God and neighbor, the purpose of which is human flourishing, not mindless obedience.
This past week we celebrated Valentine’s Day, that Hallmark creation that has no doubt far exceeded its author’s wildest expectations. It’s a day dedicated to matters of the heart, and reminds us of love’s deeper meanings.
One of the stubborn facts about love, however, is that it demands something from us. When we live only unto ourselves, we’re free to do all sorts of things. But when we enter into loving relationships, we, by definition, jettison at least some of our freedom and independence. We are required to make sacrifices. We are motivated by love to do things we ordinarily might not choose to do – and refrain from other things we might otherwise prefer to do.
Why? Because we know that certain attitudes and actions will please our beloved, while others will harm them. By restricting and reorienting our lives in the service of the beloved, our relationships are both strengthened and deepened. This broadening and deepening love ultimately produces life’s greatest joy and, yes, paradoxically, its greatest freedoms!
I’m always telling the Bible Study (so why shouldn’t I inflict it on you?) that every single aspect of our lives, our emotions, passions, feelings, gifts, and powers are but neutral entities. They are neither morally good nor bad. Their moral and spiritual value is defined solely by how we use them.
Any human power or gift, when used for profane purposes, necessarily harms not just the one misusing them, but others, perhaps especially those whom we love. But the broader community is harmed as well. Yet when we use these same powers for sacred purposes, we prove to be a great blessing to all.
Thus, the law, which Jesus tells us he came to fulfill , not reject, can be used for either sacred or profane purposes. We can use the law, as I say, as a set of abstract rules the performance of which “puffs us up,” as Paul puts it. Or we can perform these same duties in the service of love, which is a blessing.
One first way, the rote performance method, inevitably leads to self-righteousness, convincing us falsely of our superiority over others.
The second way performs its duties out of selfless love, as self-imposed restrictions and boundary-setting behaviors that honor love’s altogether necessary “rules of engagement,” and the performance of which serves love’s purposes, deepening and broadening our relationships with God and the human community.
Our covenant with God and one another, then, is a kind of “declaration of dependence.” It acknowledges that others exist and that life’s ultimate goal is love, which demands that we engage God and others accordingly. Amen.