February 6, 2010: Fulfilling the Law, Not Abolishing It

The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Another priest and I placed our coffee orders. The friendly barista asked, “Are you good today?” I jumped in, “I’m okay. I try. I’m not really good. Only one is – to quote someone else.” My friend smiled. I was referring to Jesus, of course. Someone once called him good, and he didn’t say, “Thanks for noticing.” I think Jesus is pretty darn good. But he says only one is good – and it’s not him or us. It’s his Father.

You may have come here this morning wanting to hear some tips on how to be good, or at least better. I don’t want to discourage anyone’s efforts. We need to at least try. Being good doesn’t just happen, especially given all the mess we can get into out there. Jesus has a little tip for us: Be more righteous than scribes and Pharisees. That’s a huge challenge. Scribes and Pharisees’ profession was to be good, keep the Law of Moses carefully and an eye on you to make sure you are, too. They’d been at it for decades. Even if Jesus says he hasn’t come to abolish the law and prophets, he isn’t keeping the law to their satisfaction. He’s a problem for them, not a messiah. They fear he’ll lead people astray. Jesus doesn’t keep purity laws, like washing his hands properly before he ate. He heals on the Sabbath when he should be at church. He wines, dines and parties with the wrong kind, low-life, sinners. Plus he says he knows the law’s author better than they – and that was blasphemy. So the good, God-fearing, law-abiding, religious folks do away with Jesus. Trying to be good doesn’t mean we will succeed. Something more is needed.

Today, though, not a lot of attention is given to keeping religious rules and laws. The Ten Commandments have become helpful suggestions. Have no other gods before you, becomes, “try not to have other gods. It means give God a nod, but maybe not your life. Keep the Sabbath holy. I learned in seminary that didn’t necessarily mean going to church each week. A lot of people got that message before I did, even though Sabbath probably needs to include space for God, regular worship attendance. People do better with keeping the bigger commands: Don’t kill someone, steal, commit adultery, and covet. Some popular preachers today teach new rules and laws that suit folks better: how to be happy, how to lose weight for Jesus, find the right soul mate, keep your kids in line, and “I’m wealthy and you can be too, if you buy my CD’s.” They’re not necessarily bad. They just don’t have much to do with God. People begin to treat God as a heavenly concierge.

But hasn’t Jesus come to unburden us from us from burdens the law laid on God’s people? Doesn’t he come to liberate us from sin and evil and usher us into abundant life? Yes, but hold on, Jesus says he’s come not to get rid of the rules, but fulfill them. And to be his disciples – if that’s what we really want to be – we are to fulfill them, too. Jesus first confronts our internal state – our hearts and minds. Transformation begins inside and flows out.

Isaiah points out how God’s children go through motions of reverence – trying to win God’s favor by observing fasts. Great – but something was missing. Keeping religious practices, acting devoted when we don’t practice right relationships won’t cut it. God keeps looking inside. From inside our hearts our actions flow.

I was brought up to believe – or at least it was strongly implied, obeying God’s laws will get you to heaven and make God like you better. Mom added some more: don’t smoke, don’t drink, and always obey your mother. Later I learned that keeping God’s laws and the church’s rules will not get us to heaven or earn us more of God’s favor. We have that already – that’s God’s FREELY GIVEN gift, and God won’t take it back EVEN if we AREN’T good. When people get that, it changes them. Instead of keeping rules to get God’s favor, we keep one another in God’s love – doing as Jesus, practicing forgiveness, mercy, grace, love, and random acts of kindness. That’s how Jesus fulfills the law, not ends it. Some zealous Christians miss that. They go overboard with legalisms. Rules trump people. And many become self-righteous enough to be obnoxious. Others fall overboard on the other side. They’re more casual than serious about Jesus, thinking they’re so beloved and saved; they can do anything they want. Both sides were entrenched in the developing church by the time St. Paul starts writing letters.

Jesus fulfills the law – goes right to the heart of God’s intent. And by what authority does he do this, the scribes and Pharisees ask? By his authority – the authority his Father invests in him. So you can understand why the religious leaders go ballistic, and why there’s so much turmoil and conflict in and among churches. Do we literally keep and follow the law, especially those we prefer because we we’re safe on those – or do we follow Jesus who stands over the law, who has come to show us what fulfilled and completed law looks like? Jesus even ups the law’s standards. Jesus says don’t just love those who love you back. Love your enemies. Don’t just have compassion for those who deserve it. Be compassionate toward everyone.  Change the world, not just yourself. Don’t be satisfied with the status quo. Jesus doesn’t abolish Moses’ commandments. Jesus fulfills what God started through Moses. God’s laws and rules guide us into right relationships – with God and each other. And that can get us in a heap of trouble. Look at where it got Jesus.

That’s why Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine and expose God’s love for everyone.” Jesus didn’t say, “Become all this,” but, “you are salt and light already.” Help people grow spiritually, help others resist their lower impulses, be loving, merciful and compassionate.

One command you can keep today, just remember this one –  keep your eyes, hearts and minds fixed on the One Jesus reveals as the true and only Good. Do this and everything else will fall into place nicely – including how we get along with others. Frankly, I do think we do start to become like that which we worship.


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