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Hermeneutic Handles for the Harried Herald: Law and Gospel

  • February 17, 2017 - 8:11 am
  • lutherancore

Epiphany 7 – You Are Christ’s
Leviticus 19:1-2, [3-8], 9-18
1 Corinthians 3:10-23
Matthew 5: 38-48

When you look out at your congregation this Sunday, what will you see? At the very least, we should see a group of people who have gathered, hoping to hear a word from God. The craving to hear a message from God that is in some way tailored to us—is a form of personal address—lies deep within the human psyche, and if communion with God is truly the ultimate need of each person (what else is “heaven” or “eternal life” if not this?) this may be the face this deepest need shows to us in day-to-day life. This desire has led countless people to feed at the troughs of charlatan preachers and self-proclaimed prophets, and in our day has led even more into denying the existence of God so they may avoid too closely examining this most pressing and inescapable of pains.
The categories of Law and Gospel as delineated in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions provide a way for people to hear the profoundly personal word they crave while avoiding the pitfall of peculiarly esoteric (and erroneous) exegesis.
Our Old Testament passage for the day present us with a lot of what Lutheran (and Reformed) theologians refer to as “Law.” What we mean by this is not “THE Law” in the sense of that given by God in the Old Testament and referred to as such by our Jewish brethren. What Reformation theologians mean by “Law” is any section of God’s Word that gives us instructions, and hence when—not if—we fail to keep those instructions makes us know our need for God’s mercy. How do you know if a passage is Law in this sense? A great formula to remember is, “The Law always accuses.”
This formula is easy to remember and will easily preach, and it must be preached again and again if we hope our people will get it. Indeed, we must hold it constantly before our own eyes, for the constant temptation of the human heart is not to idolatry in the casually identifiable sense, but to the subtle idolatry of relying upon ourselves rather Christ for our standing in the kingdom. When the texts for the day are filled with moral instruction, the easy thing for the harried pastor to do is moralize to his or her flock; whether we moralize about caring for the poor, sexual purity, social justice, or Christian humility, it’s still just moralizing, and it leaves our flock with nothing but themselves—their own paltry and inevitably insufficient efforts—to feed upon.
Of course, the Law in a Lutheran sense and “THE Law” in the Jewish sense often overlap, making it extremely pressing for us as preachers to teach this theology in our sermons. That is the case today with our passage from Leviticus. Quite apart from the ceremonial requirements of the Law from the optional verses 3-8, without straining by brain I can think of dozens of times that in ways small and large I have failed to “revere” (strong word!) my parents, when I have inadvertently slandered someone or told little lies to ease social or institutional tensions, when I have failed to reason frankly with my neighbors or my contention with another member of the church certainly rose to the level of “hate” against a brother, or by my actions put a stumbling block before the spiritually blind of this world, undoubtedly making them ask the question, “If that is how Christians are, why would I want to be one?”
Jesus words today in the Gospel reading are a perfect example of Law in this Lutheran sense; “Do not resist the one who is evil. … if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. … Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. … You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”
The more seriously you take Jesus’ words, the more terrifying the prospect is. As the disciples will finally realize later in this Gospel, Jesus’ demands are not merely radical, they are impossible. “Who then can be saved?”(Matthew 19:25) They have finally gotten it; they have made the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual journey we must take our parishioners on every Sunday; a place of despair at the possibilities of our own efforts and realization of how radically dependent on God’s grace we are.
Jesus’ demands are not merely radical, they are impossible. Impossible for us, that is. When we finally realize that, we are in a position for Jesus to do what He does with those first disciples. “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’” (Matthew 19:26) These words are not present in our Gospel pericope for today, but they are present in the reading from 1 Corinthians; “You are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” Therefore we “do not boast in men”—especially ourselves. We do not look upon our works to justify us, nor as evidence of our faith, or proof that we are “regenerate” or at least improving. We do not look at our works at all for we are busy looking at—and listening to—Jesus, who alone can do the work of God within us and the works of God through us.
Faith looks at its object, not itself, and Christian faith looks at Christ alone. It springs to do the works it is instructed to do and repent when it fails in its weakness to do so. But always and ever it is fastened upon the One it believes in, for its assurance is that “I am Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” The Law is always for our neighbor, for our works are always for our neighbor’s sake. (God doesn’t need them… right?!) The Gospel alone has the power to be a personal word from God to us, to the hunger that is at the root of our being.
Let us be certain as preachers that every Sunday, as we reiterate the commands of God in both the Old and New Testaments, the focus of our message is the Gospel, what God has done for all of us together and for each of us personally in Jesus Christ; for you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.

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