From New Laws to New Creation

by susan on February 14, 2017

Words for the Journey
Sunday, February 12th

The lyrics of A New Law by Derek Webb confront us with a serious question.

Are we blindly following laws or are we living new lives?

Don’t teach me about politics and government
Just tell me who to vote for
Don’t teach me about truth and beauty
Just label my music

Don’t teach me how to live like a free man
Just give me a new law

I don’t wanna know if the answers aren’t easy
So just bring it down from the mountain to me

I want a new law
I want a new law
Gimme that new law

Don’t teach me about moderation and liberty
I prefer a shot of grape juice

Don’t teach me about loving my enemies

Don’t teach me how to listen to the Spirit
Just give me a new law

What’s the use in trading a law you can never keep
For one you can that cannot get you anything
Do not be afraid

We’re continuing to move through Jesus’ most famous, yet least followed series of teachings, his “Sermon on the Mount”. After announcing a reversal of what we consider “happy” and “blessed”, Jesus urges his followers to become salt & light, to become like a city on a hill.

Before getting into detail about just exactly what that means, he makes a very bold statement about his relationship with the Law. In the coming days he was going to be breaking some laws & well, it could look a little irreverent or disrespectful or even downright rebellious.

It could seem like he’s disregarding the law altogether.

So he gives his growing crowd of followers a little head’s up: “Don’t think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” The Message translation has Jesus saying, “I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together…”

Like it is for the church today, Israel’s relationship with the law (their scripture) was a troubled one. The Law was no longer their guide & their protection – it had become central to to their faith.

It was their sole source of righteousness,
their way of measuring not only their worthiness,
but the worthiness of others.
It was being used as a weapon & a way of wielding power.

Their relationship with the Law was not making them salt and light; it was dividing them & undermining their true mission in the world.

Two years ago when visiting the Holy Land,  as I wondered the gardens of the Mount of Beatitudes, the traditional site where Jesus delivered this series of teachings, I ran across this ironic duo of messages (pictured to left). Notice anything?

It reminded me of how we too often prefer being gatekeepers of the laws & the scriptures rather than letting God speak to us through them & call us into a new way of being in the world.

To people whose religion had become about law-keeping instead of right-relating, Jesus provides some re-orientation:

Now, you follow me. I am the key to understanding the scriptures.

Because his followers seldom catch on quickly, Jesus gives examples of this new way of relating to the law. Among other laws or commandments given to Moses at Mount Sinai, there were laws prohibiting murder, adultery and dishonesty.

Jesus starts with murder.

“‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. “

– Matthew 5:21-26

Before we start taking notes about how to address every conflict we encounter, stop. This is not a step by step list of new instructions. Jesus is not swapping one clear agenda for another, one list of to-dos for a new one. Jesus is making a point.

It’s not just our actions,
but also our attitudes;
It’s not just our attitudes,
but also our thoughts
that matter in the kingdom of God.

Instead of blindly obeying laws, Jesus invites those who dare to follow him to become God’s new creation.

Instead of killing each other physically or killing ourselves with anger, insults or grudges, do this: Become reconcilers. Become menders of relationships.

This is just the first of three examples Jesus gives his followers. He not only urges them to move from you shall not murder to be reconciled; but, also from you shall not commit adultery to get rid of what is causing you to lust in the first place; and, from you shall not swear to say what you mean.

Let’s be clear. This is not the easy way. In fact, I might say it’s easier to just stick to following laws alone … if there were not 613 of them! This is not the easy way; it’s the necessary way. We must go deeper. We must deal with the root of the struggles that keep us from living as God’s new creation.

And, lets just all admit we don’t like dealing with root of any problem, because staying on the surface is so much simpler. Is it not?
It’s simpler to keep from murdering someone than to look deeply at what’s causing us to feel so angry we are about to explode.
It’s simpler to just stay married & stay faithful than to deal with our restlessness, our longings for intimacy & our craving for more or better.
It’s simpler to make another promise than to address the struggle we have with keeping commitments to anyone or anything.
It’s simpler to do good in the world or confront the evils around us than to address the ones within us.

Jesus did not have a problem with the Law.  He had a problem with people substituting laws for transformed ways of living & relating to one another.  He had a problem with people who’d rather follow laws than look deep within themselves & confront the things that are preventing new life.

NT Wright says, Jesus was telling his hearers to “give up their agendas…and to trust him for his way of being Israel, his way of bringing the kingdom, his kingdom-agenda”.

That sounds vulnerable & messy & risky, too.
Sticking to our agendas seems a lot safer to me.

On Friday, I was gathered with a group of faith leaders to hear from our new State Attorney about the reforms she plans to make in our broken, partial & in-need-of-repair criminal justice system.

There were about twenty ministers in the room – twenty ministers there to stand with those who are vulnerable – like victims’ families & brown-skinned, poor or mentally ill prisoners. There were also several people there who work in the state attorney’s office, young professionals recording our conversation.

In the middle of our Q & A, one of the ministers began to tell the story of how both of his sons had been murdered in the same shooting. The room fell silent as he began to share about the impact of this unbearable tragedy on his life. Before he could even finish, the pastor who was moderating the conversation interrupted. We needed to get back to the agenda. Move on before we run out of time. It was the state attorney who later called attention to this man’s pain & offered her sincere apology for his loss.

I was furious & not just because this colleague missed the point, but because I so often get it wrong. I, too, become consumed with my own agenda, with sticking to the script, with trying to please God or anyone who wants to be pleased that I miss the ways that God is present doing something new – calling me, calling us deeper into dealing with the root of the problem – calling us deeper into his life-giving, love-centered ways.

When we refuse to look & think & listen deeply,
When we ignore the pain, anger & grief in & around us,
when we make laws or to-do lists more important than loving one another, then we have lost our way.

Friends, we can have wonderful agendas & go around trying our best to write the world of its wrongs, but if we are not addressing the root of the problems in our own hearts & in our families & in our communities then we are wasting our time. If we put the law above loving our neighbors & ourselves, then we have forfeited the heart of the kingdom of God.

At least that’s what Jesus says. I think Paul said it too in his letter to the Corinthians: “If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1).

Jesus invited his followers and he invites us to go deeper.
To consider not just our actions,
but also our attitudes
& our thoughts
& even our hearts.

Jesus wasn’t looking for rule-followers or for people who would just swap one agenda for another.  He was hoping for people willing to have their lives rearranged to be part of this crazy, beautiful upside-down kingdom of God.

** Portrait right lower corner: Sermon on the Mount by Henrik Olrik (1830-1890).

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