The Law and the Prophets
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Trinity, October 11, 2020
“This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
CAN WE BE GOOD ENOUGH? Isn’t this our Christian dilemma, made apparent when we read some passage of the New Testament like where St. John says, “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother.” 1 John 3:9-10 Or Jesus saying, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:48 If we then ask what sin means, often we run into the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments are smooth sailing, mostly, if we view them in their extreme interpretation. “Don’t steal – okay. Adultery is out. Right. No murder – got it. Covet? Well… False testimony: that’s courtroom stuff. Okay. I’m good.” Then we hear Jesus on the Mount, saying if we look on a woman with lust, we’ve started down the road to adultery. If we hate someone, it’s punishable because it’s in the same character as murder. Now we’re troubled. Nobody can live that perfectly. It’s not realistic.
The early Christians were often bothered by this tension between an intention to follow Christ and our not being able to perform it. What is our intent? To follow Him, live like He did, use Him as our constant measuring stick? Or not to follow Him? Are we on the boat or are we on the shore? If you have one foot on each, you know, you’re going for a swim!
This is a dilemma, and we know it, and we like the translations that leave some wiggle room. The Amplified Bible reads John’s Epistle, “No one who is born of God [deliberately, knowingly, and habitually] practices sin, because God’s seed [His principle of life, the essence of His righteous character] remains [permanently] in him [who is born again—who is reborn from above—spiritually transformed, renewed, and set apart for His purpose]; and he [who is born again] cannot habitually [live a life characterized by] sin, because he is born of God and longs to please Him. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are clearly identified: anyone who does not practice righteousness [who does not seek God’s will in thought, action, and purpose] is not of God, nor is the one who does not [unselfishly] love his [believing] brother.” 1 John 3:9-10
Are we looking for the easy road, a clever philosophy, an escape clause, or are we seeking a perfect God? And if He is perfect, we seek perfection, in Him and in ourselves. Do we want the Gospel as fire insurance, then act like unbelievers when we do the things we know aren’t good, but do them anyway? As St. Paul bemoaned that, “the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.” Romans 7:14-15
God’s will is our perfection. That’s not for His sake, but for ours. He knows that sin feels bad. We fall back, turn away from Him, beat ourselves up, and sulk, but then that other stream running in us tears at us, screams to be let out, calls us hypocrites, and wears us down. Our imperfection gets the upper hand and we mourn it, pray our prayers of sorrow, and make vain oaths never to do it again. God sees all this, and He has seen it from before time began, because He knows everything before it happens. It isn’t shocking to Him. And he walked the earth in a human life, sharing our sorrows for our sakes, to give us the answer to this problem. Are we listening?
All four Gospel accounts tell of a day when three of His apostles came with Jesus to a mountaintop. Watch out for mountaintops. Things happen there. Moses received the Law on the top of Mount Horeb. Elijah challenged 750 pagan priests with two altars on Mount Carmel and God’s flame fell on Elijah’s offering. And on this mountaintop, Jesus was transfigured, that is, His natural form was altered into brilliant white light. He stood like a lightning bolt in human form. Then the same Moses and Elijah appeared out of nowhere, joined Jesus in conversation, and Peter, James and John fell into a faint. When he could speak again, Peter offered a plan to build three shrines for the holy men, so people might visit this mountain and see them, speak with them, pay homage to them. God interrupted Peter’s foolish talk and said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!”
Peter and his fellow apostles were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah and, whatever that meant, they would see Him through this prophetic role. But Moses and Elijah epitomized the Lawgiver and Prophet, two sections of the Jewish sacred writings, all authority found in them, and they were read each Sabbath in holy worship. The Father from heaven, however, wanted the apostles to take another look. Moses and Elijah were consulting Jesus, God’s Son, and while they were consoling Him, He was commanding them. You’ve heard the Law and the Prophets, now you will hear from God the Son. Stop thinking you have this figured out. There is much more to know. Hear My Son.
On another day, a smart lawyer challenged Jesus about being holy, laying a trap of sorts for Him, the kind of trap lawyers like to set for witnesses. What is the great commandment in the Law? Whatever Jesus might say, “Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God is one. You shall have no other gods before me.” The lawyer could then say, “Don’t you keep the Sabbath?” “What about idolatry?” “So, you’re in favor of murder?”
But Jesus, knowing this was the reason for his question, actually knew the right answer. He didn’t cite the Ten Commandments, which are examples of right living, but Deuteronomy, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and with all your strength.” While the people stood wondering at this statement, He added, “This is the first and the greatest commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22
Whatever our question is: about the nature of God, the will of God, the standard of God, God’s plan for us, His reason for creating us, our past, our future, and our next step: the answer truly is Jesus Christ.
We had a goofy thing in my childhood called a Magic 8 Ball. It was shaped like the black ball on a pool table and on the bottom was a little window. You asked a question and turned it over to read the answer that would appear. Yes; Count on it; No; or I have no idea. It was stupid, we knew. It gave contradictory answers to the same question asked twice. That’s our human way to get the answers. Do you want God’s way now?
From the fall of mankind, people have been wild and vicious. It was horrible what they could do, and God even stopped it all with a huge flood, narrowing it down to one family to start all over. He kept having to separate out people who would listen to Him from the others, and making the rules very basic. We’ve heard “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” and thought that was God’s ultimate justice. No. That is how we become blind and toothless, if we think it’s the ultimate standard. No, this was about limiting retribution. It was a starting place.
You’ve watched Western movies. Insult my boots and we’re going to face each other in the street. Frontier justice was all about escalation. God set a limit at equal punishment for equal offense – and no more. Insult my boots, and I will say yours look funny too. Done.
Now comes Jesus. Don’t insult that guy back, let it go. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemy. Give without seeking to get it back. Give him your cloak and your jacket, both. Feed him. Love Him. Do you sense the change here? It’s a higher standard, but look: it’s a standard of another sort. Love, not justice. Love, not bloodshed. Love, not getting over the top of.
We might strive all our lives to be as good as we can, and that ought to be our aim, or at least a measure of our progress. But Jesus, who is the answer, has given us the answer if we hear Him. He’s the one shining on the mountaintop. What does He say? “Love God with everything you have, and love each other as equals.” Then He gives a new commandment at His Last Supper, “Love one another, as I love you.”
Cynical people have suggested that simple humanitarian love, as we might define it, satisfies all of God’s will. We give to Easter Seals and St. Jude’s Hospital, call that love, and feel our other quirks will pass for humility. No. The standard is still Jesus. Are we as good as He is? No? Then you don’t love nearly enough. And what about that 1st and greatest commandment? People try to reverse the order, making their weak gestures of love for mankind the ultimate good. It’s not. It isn’t even good at all. Not without loving God first, which means believing in Him, hearing Him. Learn of Him, stake your existence on Him, follow Him, shed your tears out to Him, make Him your one True God. Let Him define love for you, and direct how your charity be spent, and how much. He is Lord.
We have this dilemma. We should be perfect, or intend to be perfect in His sight, and we aren’t anywhere close to that. He won’t have imperfection in His eternal kingdom, so where are we? Again, He is the answer. That cross was His answer. He died to set our sins aside. We look at the cross and remember what He paid for each of our misdeeds, and we get serious about it. He erased our sins with His blood. It cost Him. We get up and keep walking. And we remember: it’s now about love, a changed nature, Christ-like in how we see Him and how we see our fellow human beings.
And by this discipline, we learn to live in Him. “…waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Cor 1