14 Pentecost • August 23, 2020
Exodus 12:1-14 • Psalm 145 • Romans 13:8-14 • Matthew 18:15-20
In the Name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus preached the availability of the kingdom of God to everyone, and what he declared was pretty much a mystery to his followers. What he said sounded right in some way; his stories and sayings were captivating; but exactly what he was talking about was not really clear.
This was especially true for the scribes and Pharisees, the religious experts of the day, who were very clear about what God wanted from them and how to go about giving it to him. Follow the Law as it was handed down from generations past. Even in the smallest thing, obey the Law. As for Jesus, they saw him as a lax, lazy, and permissive distorter of the absolute truth that had already been received.
And yet, very little of what Jesus taught was new. He was grounded in the Law and the Prophets. Isaiah and Jeremiah and the other prophets were the context out of which he spoke; they were the foundation of his understanding of will of God. From his standpoint, Jesus saw his teachings to be the direct and logical result of the teachings that had been handed down.
This is why, from the very first practice of the Early Church, the Hebrew Scriptures—the Old Testament, as we call it—was always included in Christian worship. They are the foundation of our understanding, just as they were Jesus’ bedrock, his fundamental truths.
So, what was new in Jesus teachings? What did he see in the ancient scriptures that others had missed? Well, what he saw was deceptively simple. He saw that, if your were to get to the bottom of all the Law and the Prophets, what was to be found was the basic principle that we are to love God and love one another. Jesus said, when challenged about the novelty and strangeness of his teachings, that he had not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.
St Paul grasped this understanding of what Jesus was teaching, even though he never knew him in person. Paul did know through the vision that he received on road traveling to persecute the Jewish heretics in Damascus who called themselves followers of Christ. He also knew Jesus from the stories and instruction of others who had known Jesus personally. He did, however, get the essence of Jesus.
In today’s Second Lesson, Paul writes to the church in Rome, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” He was a student of the Law, but after he saw Jesus he became aware that all the dictates of the Law were intended to keep us from damaging each other. Indeed, the Law encouraged us to be a benefit to each other, to care for each other, to love.
Paul says that to refrain from adultery, murder, theft, and coveting “are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Far from being simple or lax, this is a much stricter version of how to live than merely following the dictates of the Law. The commandment to love each other requires each of us to sort out what would be good for the other person, to discern what would damage them or contribute to their wellbeing.
This process of discerning what is best for another person changes from moment to moment, so that if we are to love each other we have to listen intently; we have to be aware of their needs and wants; we have to be conscious of where they are coming from. It requires us to “read between the lines” in what others say to hear what their true meaning is.
Sometimes people describe the Episcopal Church as “Catholic Lite.” In some ways, this description of our beloved Church is exactly true, and in others, it misses the mark completely. I have always found it amusing for exactly that reason.
Far from being an insult, it gets to the heart of our faith. We have a long history of rules and regulations, built up over two thousand years of church life. But in every generation, there have been those among us who gradually relaxed the grip of inflexible Law and opted in favor of love. Throughout Christian history, some have seen that all we need is love, and also that to love requires a lot of work.