The text for this sermon is Romans 8:3-4
There are some who follow our speed limit laws to the letter and others that take them as mere suggestions. I actually am one of those who follows carefully the speed limit laws…but I always go five miles over if I can. Which is really pretty much following the law. I mean if I go exactly 70 on that stretch of highway between Columbus and Cleveland, I will be that loser that everyone is passing. I am just irritating people, that can’t be good. And really, what police officer is going to stop me for going 75 on a beautiful dry day. So, I consider going 75 in a 70 actually following the law.
Is that some convoluted thinking or what? Although, who here couldn’t keep up with it, understand it and I know that some of you even agreed with it. Bottom line, all laws are just tools to measure behavior. Laws serve as a marker, a line in the sand. If you fall on this side, you are okay, but that side you are punished. Sometimes, the line seems arbitrary, 70 MPH is okay, 71 MPH is punished. But the purpose for the law is always the same, to check our behavior so we will be good citizens not bad, good neighbors not bad.
The law accomplishes this purpose through punishment. We don’t usually get rewarded for following the law. “Yes, ma’am, I pulled you over today to say good job going 35 down Livingston. I know it was hard what with all of those cars passing you going to 45, but you kept at it. Thank you.” What? If you saw those people going 45 why didn’t you stop them instead of me? No, generally laws measure behavior in order to determine who to punish, not who to reward. And in fact, most of us follow laws more carefully when we believe swift punishment will happen if we don’t. I never do, but a lot of people lie on their taxes, because unless we are wealthy, we are more likely to win the lottery then get audited.
Of course, the Old Testament is full of all sorts of laws. God’s laws we call them. Everything from the big ten to smaller ones that make no sense to us at all today, like a law against wearing cotton and leather at the same time. The purpose of God’s laws is similar to the purpose of Man’s laws, to make us good neighbors. God’s laws, like Man’s laws measure our behavior. The line is here, cotton robe okay, add a leather belt and you have crossed the line. Again, I have no idea why that would make us a better neighbor. However, I do understand that cheating on taxes breaks God’s law against lying and makes me a bad neighbor, I am not paying my fair share.
The problem with God’s laws is that while there might be sure punishment, end of time, judgment day, hell, all of that, there doesn’t seem to be swift punishment. Humans aren’t motivated well by delayed punishment. This is why traffic cameras taking pictures of us running the red light are less effective in encouraging good behavior then a police officer at that light pulling people over. In order to effect our behavior by laws, we need our lightning bolts right away.
Since God doesn’t seem to be in the swift punishment business, the church has been happy to take on this role. Truth be told most in the church kind of like this part of the job, separating the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the chaff. Some church people are all about measuring things. In Jesus’ day, they got real status by being the best sort of law followers. Jesus thought a lot of good religious folk seemed more interested in following the law then doing the right thing, because sometimes the two don’t go together. It might be good to lie to the grieving widow next to you in the pew then to tell her you thought her husband was an idiot. Rather than have us ask whether this action crosses a line, Jesus wanted us to ask whether our action loved our neighbor. Listing and enforcing laws is easier for a church then the squishy business of deciding what is most loving.
But when the church gets in the law enforcement business, the purpose for the law, to make us better neighbors, is lost and the purpose of the church falls short of Jesus’ hope. Eugene Peterson when interpreting the third and fourth verse of this reading wrote this for Paul’s words, The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us. Focus by religious folk on God’s law ended up being a band aid because while it could stop some bad behavior, it couldn’t heal what caused that behavior. We might change behavior, but we don’t change lives. I might stop speeding down that stretch of highway when I see that police officer in the bushes, but then speed right back up when they are clearly distant in my rearview mirror. In Jesus, God reveals that he wants more for us then just moderated behavior. God wants changed lives.
Paul hopes for the church is that our focus will be on changing lives not enforcing the law. The holy meal at the end of a Sunday worship service was an important symbol for Paul of how the church changed lives, while disregarding laws. There were many social and religious laws around meals in Paul’s day and all of them were thrown out the window in the meal that ended worship in Paul’s scattered house churches. In Paul’s day, the rich ate before the poor, masters before slaves, men before women. Jews didn’t eat with Gentiles. Unclean Jews with clean Jews. The diseased with the well. In this holy meal, none of these laws would be followed. Everyone would eat together. The meal at the end of the service would take our focus off of laws that divide, drawing lines in the sand. Instead, it would speak the truth that all are equally loved, equally worthy and equally served…no matter whether we are the worst law breaker or the most conscientious.
Laws might be good band aids, but we want to be in the healing business. If I catch a 19 year old with his hand in the offering plate, does he need a trip to jail or even more money from us to help solve whatever problem he is trying to overcome? Does a 70 year old member who is spreading rumors about another member need to be brought before council or asked privately why she is so angry? Do the neighbors in our pews committing adultery need to be shown the door or helped to understand that the hole they are trying to fill with sex can only be filled by trusting they are good enough?
Laws are good, but loving is better. Lines make sense, except of course when they don’t and mercy would make more sense. Maybe God doesn’t need our help throwing lightning bolts because God never intended to throw lightning bolts at us. Maybe God needs our help creating a place where lives can be changed, rather than lives being kept in line.