Grace.

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2012-03-11 by abookflog

Preacher: Veronica Zundel
11th March 2012
Readings: Psalm 19:1-10, John 2:13-22

Psalm 19:1-10

1      The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2      Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
3      There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
4      yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In the heavens  he has set a tent for the sun,
5      which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
6      Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hid from its heat.
7      The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
8      the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
9      the fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
10      More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.

John 2:13-22

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.
15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.
16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”
21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body.
22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Before I started writing this sermon, I wanted to talk about the grace of God.  A simple definition of grace is that it’s the undeserved, freely given love of God towards us, regardless of any moral worth of our own. Then I looked at the lectionary readings for today and found that they included the Ten Commandments, and the praise of the Law in Psalm 19. I realized that I would have to talk about law first, and the complicated relationship between law and grace. So here goes.

Christians, though not Anabaptists, have often been keen on trying to recall society to the Ten Commandments. When I was young there always seemed to be  some Christian campaign happening to bring the nation’s attention to these ten rules for living;  though  like many  Christian campaigns they never seemed  to have much impact. Nor did John Major’s ‘Back to basics’ campaign which was in some ways a secular version of the same thing – and one has to note the irony that the man who was calling the country back to traditional morality, had  himself broken the seventh commandment by having an extramarital affair with Edwina Currie. So much for back to basics.

There’s nothing wrong with the Ten Commandments in themselves. They’re one of the best sets of rules around for living a God-centred life and caring for your fellow human beings. David Armes shared with us not long ago how the Ten Commandments had helped him in his quest for mental health. And although Christians often dismiss Judaism as a rule-based religion,  the Old Testament is actually full of praise of the law as a great gift from God, a sign of God’s love. There is no sense in Psalm 19, which we read together,  that the law is burdensome, or impossible to keep. Rather, just as we can discover God’s presence through the beauties of the created world, so we are to sense and enjoy God’s goodness in the moral law. The law was, in fact, for the ancient Jews (and perhaps too for modern ones) a sign of God’s grace.

The trouble is, it’s so easy to slip from respecting the moral law,  into thinking that to please God, all we have to do is obey certain simple rules (which always seem to get more complicated the deeper you go into them). And when you start basing your spiritual life on a set of rules, it’s only a step away from  becoming rigid, judgmental and hypocritical, as so many Christian sects have.

In the past I’ve heaard Christians say that the work of the Holy Spirit in our life is to help us to obey God’s laws. I’ve always felt uneasy with this. John’s Gospel  tells us Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit and of grace, but  Jesus himself repeatedly broke the Jewish law:  Sabbath laws, laws about purity, laws about how men were supposed to relate to women and to Gentiles (preferably as little as possible), and all sorts of other rules of the Judaism of his day.

Of course there is an easy way to get round Jesus’ repeated law-breaking: you simply say that the Jews of the day had added all kinds of unbiblical extra laws, which God never wanted, to the simple biblical law. Then you say it was only these laws that Jesus broke. Unfortunately, this interpretation simply doesn’t work. There are all sorts of laws Jesus broke which are clearly there in the Bible – the laws against touching a dead body for instance.

Another way to slice this is to separate the moral law from the ceremonial law, and say it’s only the moral law that we are meant to keep, and that the Spirit’s job is to help us keep it. This has more mileage in it.  But apart from the difficulty of determining which is which, it also still leaves us with a religion which is essentially about how well we behave. Which doesn’t seem to have much to do with undeserved grace.

Of course you can err in the other direction, as Anabaptists have been keen to point out.  St Paul was very hot on the opposition between law and grace, especially in Romans and Galatians.   Many have interpreted this to mean that salvation is purely about accepting God’s grace through faith, and that how we live contributes nothing to our salvation. Some even say that once we are ‘saved’, nothing we do can erase our salvation. This is extremely un-Anabaptist.

In recent years scholars have come up  with ‘the new perspective on Paul’. This sees  him, when he talks about law and grace, as talking about more about the Jewish law, not morality or good works as such, which God still calls for. The new perspective has been welcomed by Anabaptists, who have for five hundred years insisted that the grace of God doesn’t mean we can disregard moral behaviour. Yes, we are saved by grace through faith, but we still have to live a life of Christian discipleship.   When I lived in a theological college, the students were set an essay on ‘What are we saved from?’ This  struck me as a very odd question. I believe we are saved not just from something but for something: to live a Christlike life, to join God in the transformation of the world. And salvation isn’t just about rescuing individuals from destruction, it’s about creating a community of salvation through whom God will make a new heavens and a new earth.

So it isn’t all about keeping the rules, but nor is it all about believing the right things. Faith and works, grace and law,  go together and can’t be separated without harm. But that still leaves me wanting to talk about grace, more than I want to talk about law. And one reason for this is that I suspect we Anabaptists have not been very good at grace over the centuries – particularly in the use of the ban. I actually think that when Jesus said in Matthew 18 that if your fellow Christian refuses to repent, you should treat them like a Gentile or a tax collector, he didn’t mean ‘shun them’, he meant ‘regard them as a non-Christian, since they are not behaving like a Christian’. What do we do with non-Christians? We proclaim the good news of Jesus to them.

Dealing with the relationship between law and grace, or faith and works, is a very fine balancing act. We Mennonites place a lot of emphasis on how we live our daily lives, and on Jesus’ life as a model for ours. This is a key conviction for us, and it is important that we keep to it. But we have a particular danger, along with other Christian denominations and especially evangelical ones. The danger is that when we emphasise right living,  we are only one step from losing sight of the grace that loves, rescues and restores us no matter how often we fall into sin.

It’s a supreme irony that the people who put most emphasis on God’s free forgiveness of our sins through Jesus, are often the most afraid of falling into any sins at all. However much we disagree with Luther on some things, I wonder whether we need to hear again his call to ‘love God, and sin on boldly’? I don’t think he was saying that if we love God, our sins don’t matter; but that if we truly love God and our neighbour, although we will still sin, we will be firmly on the road that leads away from sin to salvation. Augustine put it a slightly different way – and I don’t often agree with Augustine, but here I do: ‘love God, and do as you like’. Because if we love God, what we will come to like will be what God likes. Somebody, I think it may have been Dave Andrews, has said that we are either moving  towards Jesus or moving away from him. If we are on the road towards him, it doesn’t matter how often we stumble over the boulders on that road, so long as we stay on it.

There’s a second thing I had determined before writing this  – that I didn’t want to preach on the cleansing of the Temple, because we’ve all probably heard too many sermons on it already.  But I am going to say something about the cleansing of the Temple, and I’m also going to do something I rarely do: I’m going to spiritualize it.

Jesus’ given reason for driving out the traders was that they were ‘making his Father’s house a marketplace’. Where is ‘the Father’s house’ for Christians today? It isn’t in Jerusalem, or even in Westbury Avenue Baptist Church’s foyer. Paul made it clear that we, the gathered believers, are ‘the Father’s house’, the temple where the Holy Spirit lives. So I thought it would be interesting to ask the question: in what ways do we make the Father’s house – that is, the Christian community – a marketplace?

It would be easy to take a dig at the Christian bookshops and conferences where money (though not very much) is made out of selling people diaries, pens and greetings cards with texts on them. But I think that would be a cheap shot. It would also be easy to say that modern capitalism has made every area  of life a marketplace, so that politicians can even talk about ‘a market in health’.  But that might be a cheap shot too.

So let’s look at ourselves. Perhaps for all of us, there are subtle but destructive ways in which we introduce ‘market thinking’, or the idolatry of competition, into our faith and lives. In a culture where the market is king, it would be surprising if Christians weren’t influenced. Do we try to bargain or earn favour with God, expecting that God will have to bless us if we live a really just, low carbon, moral life? Do we unconsciously compete with each other, or with other churches, as to who’s got the best theology or discipleship?  At a church weekend away a long time ago,  I and some others, appearing as ‘Anna and the Baptists’, sang a song I’d written based on the famous Monty Python lumberjack song. It included this verse:

I share my goods, I share my lunch,
I share my colds and flu;
I thank my God each day that I’m
more radical than you.

This was followed by the chorus:

I’m a Mennonite and I’m OK,
I pray all night and I work all day.

It was a joke, but sometimes I fear it was a joke on myself. Do I, somewhere deep inside, think that I’ve won the spiritual lottery and am much more Christian than any other type of believer? Because if I do, I am making the house of God a marketplace.

Especially in Lent, when some of us make extra rules for ourselves, it’s so easy to either pride ourselves on how well we kept away from chocolate, or to feel guilty and embarrassed that we lapsed and had a chocolate digestive. So let me make it clear, to myself as much as anyone else: God will not love you any more because you filled in your Christian Aid ‘Count Your Blessings’ leaflet every day in Lent, or love me any less because I ate a few desserts and haven’t lost as much weight as I hoped to. Because we’re under grace, not under law.

That doesn’t mean grace equals licence, as Paul made clear to the Romans: ‘Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?’. Anyone who has really appreciated the grace of God, cannot feel good about doing things that don’t please God, or failing to do things that do please God. After all, children with good parents want to please their parents. So if you know that in God you have a parent who is not just loving but actually is Love, you would certainly want to please that parent.

The best parents, however, don’t discipline their children by having large sets of rules to be obeyed. The best parents model their values to their children and try to foster a love in their children of what they themselves think important. Of course children have to have boundaries, because as a very good Mennonite parenting book says, they arrive on this planet as little aliens who don’t know the rules of earth behaviour. But as they grow up they need those boundaries less and less, because the boundaries have been internalized and the desired behaviour comes naturally.  And it’s the same with growing up into the full likeness of Christ; the Spirit in us helps us internalize what God wants, in the process that Alan and Ellie Kreider call ‘re-reflexing’, and we begin to live naturally as God wants. Rules imposed from outside are for our spiritual childhood.

We will never get the whole way to what Ephesians calls ‘the full stature of Christ’ in this life. Still, we have the body of Christ, the church,  to encourage each other to grow into it. In fact this is the first congregation I’ve been in that I feel really does that. And it’s something that can never be achieved just by rules.

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